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.