Away with the manger
Nativity scenes play fast and loose with reality
A pine sapling stands on our hearth this Christmas, marking the place usually inhabited by a miniature nativity scene. On decorating day, my daughter pled the case for the nativity’s annual resurrection, but I could not abide another year’s witness to Mary, prodded upright and kneeling, minutes after giving birth.
I’d begrudgingly set up the porcelain figures last year, but only after painting the blond Jesus’ skin with a raw umber that wound up making him look pocked, as though he had one of the skin diseases he would later cure. Whether the real Jesus was actually God incarnate wasn’t the issue, then or now. Divine or not, it is commonly accepted that he was born a Jewish boy in the Middle East. Yet, according to nativity scenes throughout Placer County, He continues to be confused with the Gerber baby, his parents resembling the mom from Little House on the Prairie reruns and an unshaven Mitt Romney.
Where last year’s aversion to the tableau had come down to race, this year it’s the sterile birth scene that suddenly strikes me as an affront to women everywhere. With something approaching radar, I am zeroing in on Madonnas like never before. The front-lawn varieties are the worst. Eyes glazed, these resigned Marys perch up on their knees—all the way up, restrained even from resting their bottoms on their calves. As I look at them, I find my internal dialogue turns outraged: “Where’s the sweat, damn it? The milk? The blood? The placenta? Who cut the cord? Did the Little Drummer Boy step in with a sharpened drumstick?”
What is it about the reality of birth? Does it make us think too much about the act that must precede birth? If so, that train of thought wouldn’t apply to Mary; her child’s birth is widely accepted as a virgin one. So perhaps it’s the vagina in general that troubles people: a sex organ one minute, a life-giving portal the next. Perhaps it’s more palatable to imagine the infant Jesus slipping, clean and swaddled, out of Mary while she bent to hobble her donkey.
Have I bypassed feminism and headed into Christmas-stealing Grinch territory? It’s no longer a stretch to imagine myself atop a sleigh, whisking down snowy Interstate 80 into slumbering Rocklin to teach those smug Whos a lesson. I vaguely hear Boris Karloff’s voice:
She took all of their mangers.
She took Mary’s robes.
She took plastic Jesus’ swaddling clothes.
She laid down the Madonnas
On their sides, all bare-breasted.
Then dashed up I-80
Before she was arrested.
But I dismiss that idea. If I were to question the historical accuracy of my neighbors’ front-lawn nativity scenes, let alone rearrange them, I might not be forgiven and invited to carve the “roast beast.” It’s just not worth it.
Still, one small crèche remains in our home. In it, Mary is represented by a low-set triangular shape, allowing for interpretation about her posture, her skin color, her frame of mind. All of the figures are made of clear glass, so if I held them up to my eye, one by one, while you stood across the room, I could fill any member of the Holy Family with you.
And isn’t that the essence of something Mary’s baby said, once he grew up? “I am in you and you are in me” (John 14:20, NIV).
Jesus represented big ideas with small images a lot, so I think he might like the little abstract nativity scene. I think his mom would appreciate it, too. I’d love to ask what the squatty glass triangle looks like to her. There’s no way to know, but I’ve got a feeling she’d see a weary woman there, in need of rest and a little privacy.