For many, the line of ‘Away in a manger, no crib for a bed’ conjures up thoughts of sheep, angels, a very bright star, and three men (be they kings or wise). Congo Squares’ production of The Nativity surely highlights many of those aspects. But, what about the source? The Real Nativity summarizes the Biblical account of the Nativity story, as well as describes how different holiday traditions find their roots in the holiday story.
The Real Nativity
BY WILLIAM LANDON
After seeing this adaptation of Langston Hughes’ gospel musical Black Nativity, you may wonder just how many modern references and characters were really supposed to be there. You may reason, for instance, that hotels and credit scores could not have possibly existed during the actual time of Jesus’ birth. Congo Square’s The Nativity is a perfect example of modern adaptation from a classic text. The Nativity story, as it appears in the Christian Bible, is a very different tale from the one that Congo Square presents.
It is important to look at the story of the Nativity, or the birth of Jesus, from both a Christian perspective and a non-Christian one. Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God sent to redeem humanity. Although this tenet is familiar to Christians, others may not know that it is the central focus of the religious Christmas celebration and the guiding principle of the Christian religion. Jesus’ birth is described in the Gospels, or the first four books of the New Testament in the Christian Bible, which describe the life of Jesus Christ. It is from these four books that the musical genre “gospel” gets its name. The story of Jesus’ birth only actually appears in two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, and is told slightly differently in each. The one that is most commonly accepted and told is the Gospel according to Luke.
As the story begins, Mary, a young woman, and Joseph, a carpenter, are engaged to be married. Before the wedding, an angel named Gabriel appears to her and tells her with great celebration that she will become pregnant with the son of God, who will become king. She asks how this could be possible, and the angel explains that God will do so through his power and because of this her son will be holy (blessed by God). When Joseph finds out, he initially believes Mary has been unfaithful to him and plans to quietly send her away. Covering all of his bases, though, God sends another angel to deliver the same news to Joseph. Neither is sure how to handle this news. It is announced that the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus (then in control of the region of Syria and Judea, where the story takes place and what is now modern-day Israel), is about to conduct a census of the region. This meant that all citizens had to travel to their “ancestral towns” to be taxed as citizens of the Roman Empire. As Joseph is a descendent of King David, he and Mary must travel to David’s ancestral home of Bethlehem. Mary, now far along in her pregnancy, goes into labor upon their arrival. Joseph attempts to find room at an inn, but he soon finds that all the rooms are booked as a result of the census. He and Mary are forced to find shelter in a manger (stable or barn). While there, Mary gives birth to Jesus. She wraps the baby snugly in cloth and lays him in the hay.
While all of this has been going on, angels have appeared to nearby shepherds and three foreign Wise Men (this detail actually appears in the Gospel of Matthew, not Luke) to inform them of the birth of the Christ child in the city of Bethlehem. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Three Wise Men (also known as the Three Kings, or the Magi) travel to Bethlehem bringing gifts for the child. Word had spread quickly that this child, born in a stable, is to be the new King David (Jesus’ lineage). Word eventually reaches Herod, the local king. He quickly becomes worried that this child will one day steal his throne and secretly calls the Three Wise Men. He asks them to visit the child, then report back to him so he also may go and pay homage. The Wise Men, like the shepherds, are guided to Bethlehem by the Star of Bethlehem (also only found in Matthew), an extremely bright star shining over the city and Jesus’ birthplace. Once there, they give their gifts to the newborn child and, along with others in attendance, pay tribute. God warns the Wise Men to not return to Herod, so they all depart for their home countries by a different path. The story isn’t over yet, though. Herod issues a death sentence for all newborn children in an effort to find and kill the baby Jesus. This order becomes known as the Slaughter of the Innocents. God visits Joseph in a dream and tells him to flee with his family to Egypt to avoid Herod. While Herod’s campaign is brutal, he quickly dies of a serious disease. After the death of Herod, Mary and Joseph return to Judea and settle in the small town of Nazareth, in Galilee, where it is prophesized Jesus will grow up.
This story has been told every Christmas in Christian churches for thousands of years, and the details may differ among Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and Orthodox. To many non-Christian traditions such as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, the story of the Annunciation and the Nativity may serve as a an interesting tale and cultural folklore. It is important to recognize that even though they may not follow the “savior” theme of the Nativity story, or all of the details, most major religions recognize Jesus Christ as a prophet. As such, they are familiar with him as an important spiritual guide while not placing him in the role of Messiah. Jews read the Torah, which is very similar to the Old Testament text of the Bible. They might not find the same spiritual significance in the Nativity story, but they are still aware of its context. Jesus was Jewish, after all.
To many, the Nativity story represents real events. In Bethlehem—modern-day Israel—a church has been built on the site of the Grotto of the Nativity, which is thought to be the location of the original manger. Christians come from all over the world to see it. So many attend, in fact, that on Christmas Eve many have to watch a live broadcast of the Roman Midnight Mass from nearby Manger Square.
Archaeologists—those who study physical material left behind by past human cultures—have looked for evidence of the real-world happenings of the Nativity story to get a better sense of its factual elements as well as the culture of the people in Jesus’ time. Some have even tried to find out what, exactly, killed King Herod (it’s now been determined that the cause was chronic kidney failure). These real-life details give many parts of the story a different perspective and can provide evidence against or for the story as we know it today—a blending of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. For instance, many argue about the premise of Joseph and Mary going to be “taxed.” Taxed, during this time, did not mean to give money to the government, but rather to be “written off” or recorded. At this time, the young couple would have had to travel to Bethlehem, as it was the ancestral home of Joseph’s bloodline—census takers didn’t go door to door in that time. Archaeologists also have contributed to finding the proposed site of the original manger. Much of the information we have about the Nativity story events comes from eyewitness accounts of real people from the time. It was an interesting period in which Roman and Judean cultural traditions blended. Without this clash of cultures, the Nativity story could have been completely different!
For non-Christians, an understanding of the Nativity story provides a clear context for many Christian cultural traditions and a foundation of Christian beliefs. To Catholic Christians, especially, the Nativity serves as the centerpiece for Christmas Eve services and symbols used in holiday decorations. It also provides the basis for the Christian practice of gift-giving on the holiday. Although many practices associated with Christmas—like the Christmas tree or winter festivities—actually come from pagan practices, understanding the spiritual foundation of the Nativity allows those who honor the secular Christmas to understand hidden meaning beneath the activities of a major international celebration. Many of our modern holiday practices stem from European traditions but also directly from the Nativity, and we may not realize it—especially if you are not Christian and choose to celebrate Christmas. Here are some examples:
Candle-lighting: Around Christmas, you may notice people keep candles in their windows. Whether electric or with a real flame, these candles have their origin in the Nativity. The thought is that the candle symbolizes warmth and hospitality, but even more importantly that it serves as a beacon for the Virgin Mary and Joseph. It welcomes them in to the home, offering a place to stay when there is no room at the inn. This varies from country to country. In America we use electric candles, in Europe people may light real ones and in countries such as India the flame comes from a clay pot filled with oil.
Gift-giving: The origins of our tradition of giving presents on Christmas stems from several different sources. Gift-giving has its origins in the Roman New Year, which took place in the winter and celebrated Mythras, the god of light. It also comes from the life of St. Nicholas, a real priest in Asia Minor, who was renowned for his generosity and kindness to children, often giving them candy and gifts. St. Nicholas is actually the basis for our modern Santa Claus. Victorian England’s revival of Christmas also made the practice of gift-giving to friends and family highly popular. From a religious perspective, though, gift-giving is meant to remind Christians of the gifts that the Three Magi brought to the baby Jesus. Since Jesus can’t directly receive physical gifts from anyone, regardless of faith or religion, gifts may be given as a symbol of goodwill and tribute.
Advent Calendars: If you’ve ever received a cardboard calendar holding a chocolate candy for each day of December in hidden compartments, you have the Nativity to thank. This little tradition has become so far removed from Christianity in America that many Christian children are totally unaware of its purpose. The calendar is based on Advent, or essentially the countdown to Jesus’ birth that starts four Sundays before Christmas. To simplify things, the calendar uses the month of December. In church services, candles also are used to count down Advent, with each candle representing one Sunday.
To many Christians, the Nativity is the most important story in the Bible. So Christmas, even without all the flair and gift-giving, is still an event full of holiday cheer. Whether you are Christian or follow any other faith, you can see some Christmas traditions a little differently with a knowledge of the Nativity story and the culture it influences.