What happens when you cross the newborn baby Jesus with The Walking Dead? Upset neighbors and a whole of of controversy—especially if you’re the couple in Ohio who built a zombie nativity in their front yard. Theirs isn’t even the strangest nativity out there: There are Etsy artisans offering nativities featuring everything from cats to Star Wars characters. There’s a rubber-duck nativity for those who want yuletide during their bath time, and even an Irish nativity with three wise men bearing gifts of clover, Guinness, and a pot of gold. The 2003 Christmas film Love Actually famously featured a grade-school nativity play with multiple lobsters, Spider-Man, and a large green octopus—as if pointing out the myriad strange ways the nativity can been reimagined.
And yet these nativity scenes aren’t much more far-fetched than the traditional ones. Christmas, like many other holidays, is a social ritual informed by some mix of religion and folklore. As you’d expect, many popular depictions of Jesus’s birth are filled with inaccuracies that conflict with the story told in the Bible—the supposed presence of “three kings,” Jesus’s birth in a stable, a fair-skinned holy family. Some are relatively harmless—the understandable result of centuries of obfuscation, speculation, and artistic reinvention. But it’s also time to let others go, or to at least broadly acknowledge their divergence from history.
On the less troublesome side is the nativity setting itself, which is usually a cave or a little stable constructed of twigs and peat moss. A Bible passage describes how Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem to take part in the mandated census, but there “was no room for them in the inn.” But don’t let the English translation fool you: The word inn doesn’t refer to some kind of first-century hotel, but rather something like a guest room for visitors. The Bible does say that Jesus was laid in a manger, and in reality, in poorer places like Bethlehem, animals were brought into the lower level of homes at night to keep them safe from bandits.
So the most likely scenario is that Jesus was born in the home of relatives somewhere on the moss-less lower level of the house where animals were often kept. Admittedly, it makes for a less compelling scene than the one most nativities capture. There’s an appealing and fitting degree of vulnerability to these popular images: the holy family, huddled around a newborn, exposed to the elements, and illuminated only by the light of a bright star. The idyllic visuals might explain why this erroneous detail stuck, and was further cemented in the cultural consciousness by the lyrics of countless Christmas carols.
Speaking of which—people often sing that the “cattle were lowing” when Jesus was born. The lyric comes from “Away in a Manger,” a popular carol first published in the late 19th century that propagates many cultural Christmas myths, including the idea that animals surrounded Jesus at his birth. But this is a detail added by a songwriter, not a scripture writer. Many nativities assume that sheep came with the shepherds and the wise men rode on camels, though this is conjecture. Even Pope Benedict XVI admitted, “In the gospels there is no mention of animals,” in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. If animals were present, there’s no way of knowing which kinds.
The most common animal in most nativities is a donkey, which is based on the popular image of the Virgin Mary riding the back of the beast and being led solely by her husband, Joseph. Yet the Bible doesn’t say which mode of transportation they used. Scholars think Mary might have ridden a donkey, given her and Joseph’s meager economic means, but it’s also likely that they traveled in a caravan, which was common and much safer than traveling alone. Jesus being born into nature alongside God’s other creatures promotes a vision of harmony among all living things—but it’s possible there were no animals present at all.
The human characters in nativity sets pose even more problems than the animals. Many nativities feature a trinity of monarchs dressed in silk robes, elaborate turbans, and gaudy gold jewelry. But the Bible says only that “magi from the east” followed a strange star to visit the infant child. The word magi, or “wisemen,” originally referred to a class of priests, probably from Persia. They were often students of astrology, which accounts for why they noticed a galactic anomaly to begin with. If Jesus’s visitors had been royalty, the Gospel writers would likely have included such a detail. Instead, Renaissance artworks depicting king-like figures at Jesus’s birth likely contributed to this misrepresentation.
It’s also unclear how many magi there were. The Bible says these wisemen brought three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—which might have led to the idea that there were three. (Certainly, the beautiful Christmas hymn “We Three Kings” has helped circulate the idea.) Christian tradition has even given these “three kings” names: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, but all of this is conjecture. The endurance of the image throughout history might stem, again, from its poignancy. The sight of earthly kings bowing to the infant “king of the universe” is a memorable, if ahistorical, one.
But perhaps the most detrimental detail perpetuated by most of these scenes is the complexion of the human characters in most Western nativities. The holy family is usually depicted with porcelain-white skin and other Anglo-Saxon features such as piercing blue eyes or rosy cheeks. It’s certainly the case for nativity sets sold at Sears.com, while Pottery Barn Kids’s nativity depicts a white Mary with a gorgeously crimped blond hairdo. And Sam’s Club apparently sees whiteness as a selling point—its “14-piece Caucasian Nativity Scene” can be yours for $79.71. Not exactly what Irving Berlin meant by “dreaming of a white Christmas.”
Though Renaissance depictions of Jesus often cast him in a European light, white images of Jesus weren’t popularized in the United States until the mid-19th century, according to Edward Blum and Paul Harvey in The Color of Christ. “The transformation of Jesus from light to white in the young United States made him, on one hand, a cultural icon of white power,” Blum and Harvey note. Although the previous problems with popular nativities are largely innocuous flourishes amassed over centuries, this one is more serious. It inadvertently reinforces the damaging cultural framework where lightness is correlated with purity and righteousness, and darkness is linked to sin and evil.
The Bible is actually silent on the matter of Jesus’s complexion (and the rest of the holy family’s), and the absence of these details is advantageous for the Christian faith. Some scholars have posited that “the silence of the Scriptures on the issue of Jesus’s skin color is critical to Christianity’s broad appeal with people of various ethnicities.” Still, historians do agree that Jesus was of Middle Eastern descent, which means he almost certainly had dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes.
All cultural traditions shift over time—especially those whose origins date back millennia. So it’s understandable that the standard nativity scene today has some dubious connections with the moment it aims to capture. Yes, the gist of the scene is all there. But in replicating these moments mindlessly year after year, there’s a risk in accepting subtle inaccuracies and convenient assumptions as historical fact. When it comes to donkeys or stables, the stakes seem fairly low. But in roundly dismissing these lesser flaws, it’s easier for believers and nonbelievers alike to also ignore the flawed rewriting of Jesus’s background. Which is to say rituals both big and small, religious or otherwise, deserve scrutiny—and that applies to more than just cats, lobsters, or zombies.
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