The Nativity scene I grew up with was like a typical children’s stage presentation at Christmas time, with Joseph and Mary, the baby in the manger, several shepherds, three wise men, an innkeeper, a donkey, an ox, several sheep, and maybe a few camels and an elephant thrown in. And above the stable would be a star of Bethlehem and maybe an angel or two. Whatever the set up it was pretty packed, but it gave as many children as possible a part to play.
And it was cute. Halos slipped, kids forgot their parts or wandered round rather aimlessly, and there was always the child who got precariously close to the edge of the stage. And in one case a sheep actually fell off.
We have St. Francis of Assisi to thank for all these Nativity scenes being played out on stage, because he was the first to stage one. Inspired by a visit to the Holy Land and a trip to Jesus’ traditional birthplace in a Bethlehem cave, he got permission from the residing Pope to set up a Nativity scene on Christmas Eve in a cave near the Italian hilltop town of Greccio in 1223. He made a manger, and brought in hay, a live ox and a donkey. But no Joseph, Mary, baby, shepherds or wise men, though.
According to Francis’ biographer, however, a devout soldier present that evening “affirmed that he beheld an infant marvellously beautiful sleeping in the manger, whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake him from sleep.” And a second legend has it that the hay Francis brought in that night not only cured the diseases of any animals that ate it, it also eased the pain in expectant mothers when they placed the hay on themselves.
Needless to say, with legends like that, the Nativity scene took on a life of its own, and over the centuries evolved into the fantasy it is today. And it is fantasy, because in the original story the wise men weren’t there, they arrived some time later, and there’s no mention in Scripture of Jesus being born in a cave or a detached stable, or that a donkey, an ox and sheep were present either. Or an angel.
Jesus was more likely born in the bottom floor of a home. When Luke talks of “the inn” in Luke 2:7, it’s referring to a guest room in a home, not a hotel. Jewish families had a guest room on the upper floor for travellers, but the guest rooms in town that night were full. There was room on the bottom floor of a home, however, where the animals, if there were any, would be.
It was a bit of a shock, then, to discover that the Nativity scene I’d grown up with was a later innovation, and it wasn’t an accurate portrayal either.