Away in a Manger

Over the past fortnight, schools across the country have been preparing for the Christmas season. For those of us who went through the UK schooling system, this usually entails a Nativity play, in which the events of the birth of Christ are retold. Many of us will recall the hours spent in assembly rehearsal jostling for closer proximity to the Fisher Price Christ child, while kitted-out in old tea towels, discarded plaited tights and repurposed curtains.

My own debut as a shepherd in the late 1980s was in a tunic sewn by my grandmother from a swathe of fabric bought with ration coupons 50 years earlier. At that point in my life my understanding of the Nativity and its central characters seemed timeless.

At the centre of the drama was the holy family, comprised of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. As the story unfolded, this core group of protagonists was augmented by further characters that fleshed-out a further element of the Nativity story: the Angel Gabriel, the innkeeper, and the three ‘kings’.

So powerful is this motif, that attempts to expand the cast beyond this group are often met with ridicule. Such criticisms, however, overlook the fact that traditions of the Nativity have always varied and that our own are often less historical than we assume.

Even the location of Christ’s birth remains debatable. From Renaissance imaginings, to my own experiences flicking straw across the stage, the stable remains a symbol of divine humility. The tradition, however, did not become widespread until the fourteenth century, although only within the Catholic European West. It would take until the 1850s before it became common in Britain. Previously, the Nativity was located within a cave —a typological symbol that anticipated the cave in which Christ would one day be buried.

Both the traditions of the stable and cave, however, represent symbolic departures from the text of the Gospels which make no mention of a stable. The Gospel of Luke, locates Christ’s birthplace in a private dwelling or inn (Greek: kataluma). Because there was no room in the lodging place, Mary was forced to use a manager for her child. The sheep, cattle and inn keepers, a common visual trope since the early middle ages, are visibly absent from the Gospel account. Further inspection of the Gospels reveals further departures from the traditional ‘Nativity’. Although the visit of the magi is recorded in Matthew, the text does not explicitly mention their number. The identification of three magi derives from a direct correlation with the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The appearance of three magi, however, did not become common until the sixth century; it would take until the tenth before they received their royal crowns. Gabriel is the final figure misplaced in our present-day Nativity scene. Although central to Annunciation, angels are not described as having visited the holy family at the time of Christ’s birth. 

Devoid of the stable, its animals, innkeepers, kings and angels, the Nativity scene of my youth now appears quite desolate. Had I been born to a Greek Orthodox family, I would have had recourse to other figures that are central to this story. The midwife Salome, who inspected the Virgin Mary and washed the infant Christ, is one figure fundamental to orthodox interpretations of the Incarnation. In Catalonia, the figure of the Caganer (‘the crapper’) would have ensured a year of fertility. Neither, I suspect, would have been compatible with the aesthetic of a 1980s Home Counties Nativity.

Like all the most successful tales of this world, the story of Christ’s birth, offers a canvas onto which we sketch our own ideas.From medieval typological interpretations that uphold the doctrines of the church, to Victorian ideas of Christian humility and family virtue, Nativity has always held a mirror to the values and aspirations of its storytellers. As the twenty first century challenges of globalism, climate change and inequality bear down upon us, perhaps it is time to pause and reflect upon what our version of that story should be.

Dr Daniel Reynolds, Lecturer in Byzantine History, Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham.