Every time I settle on one view of the first Christmas, some wise man comes along and tries to slather more grunge and grime on the manger.
You may know what I mean. When I was younger, the stable was a simple A-frame outdoor structure. The one on my family’s mantel had a little hook on the roof to hang an angel figurine. Inside were Joseph, leaning on his staff; Mary kneeling with her hands held spiritually high, palms out; and newborn six-month-old Jesus lying in a manger. Nearby were the shepherds, and of course Magi arrived earlier than scheduled.
I’m not sure when someone declared that stable out of date. But ever since, most Nativity re-enactments have bought new stable real estate, such as those Christian animated video episodes I loved, featuring time-traveling youths experiencing the first Christmas:
- “Superbook,” the first series that briefly covered the New Testament, showed Mary and Joseph arriving at a cave stable atop a hill (we never saw the inn).
- “The Greatest Adventure,” from Hanna-Barbera, also showed a cave stable.
- “The Flying House,” a series of animated New-Testament episodes, had a stable, sort of, in a fairly normal-looking downtown house, right on a Bethlehem avenue.
- In the “Adventures in Odyssey” radio series’s delightful Christmas three-part episode “Back to Bethlehem,” Connie Kendall is found liking the idea of Nativity romanticism (in the former sense of the word). That leads Mr. Whittaker to send her and the brainy collegian Eugene Meltsner to the first Christmas, via Whit’s time-travel/virtual-reality Imagination Station. In Bethlehem, Eugene debunks the stable-as-a-wood-frame-barn notion, saying instead, “the stable could have been inside a specially constructed cave.”(Oddly enough, Eugene views the presence of an innkeeper as one indication that that they’ve found the right inn, despite the fact that no innkeeper appears in Scripture!
- In The Nativity Story (2006), Joseph and an in-labor Mary take shelter in a cave-stable.
So there is it, brothers and sisters: out with the A-frame. Nativity Stable 2.0 is all cave. Let’s not buy into those Christmas myths, shall we? No warm glow from lamps in a cozy outdoor stable for you, Christ-child. That cave was not too great.
But wait! Here comes another clarification, thanks to one of my favorite Answers in Genesis contributors. In 2010, Tim Chaffey implicitly challenges any stable associated with an inn:
Joseph and Mary probably stayed with Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem, but because of the large influx of people, the house would have been crowded and the kataluma (guest room) was full. Consequently, Joseph and Mary would have been relegated to living in the lower level of the house. It is hard to believe that pregnant Mary would have been turned away from a relative’s home in a society that greatly valued familial ties.
[…] This is where the manger comes into play. Mary likely gave birth to Jesus in the lower level of a crowded house, in which some of the animals had been brought in for the night. She then wrapped Jesus in swaddling cloths and laid Him in the manger (feeding trough). [Endnotes redacted.]
So here’s the transition thus far:
- A-frame stable, cozy if not smelly. Optional: provided by sympathetic innkeeper.
- Cave stable, grittier, smellier. Optional: Joseph and Mary are Homeless Outcasts.
- Bottom room of a family residence. No inn, no innkeeper. Difficulty level: average.
At this rate, by the year 2021 we may have the Holy Family sleeping in Bethlehem’s sewers. Ha ha, holiday-romantic evangelical, the first Christmas was Much Darker Than You Think.
So why do people keep gritty-rebooting the Christmas account in the first place?
One reason may be modern retconning. For instance, the alt-narrative of an innkeeper who would like to find a place for a pregnant woman but simply can’t because of all his inn’s full rooms, is exchanged for a stereotypical swindler. Activists thus hijack the Holy Family as just another example of their socio-political cause du jour: the Homeless, and/or the Poor.
Such special-bonus Moral Lessons may be just as distracting as over-romanticizing the Nativity. Later, AiG’s Tim Chaffey ultimately agrees about what is truly important:
We should never become so focused on the peripheral details of this account that we miss the most important point. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became a descendant of Adam so that He could ultimately go to the Cross and die in our place.
Still, I must wonder: could we not use a little Nativity “romance”? I dislike overemphasis on Thomas Kinkade-like bathe-all-the-scenes-in-holy-nostalgic-glows art as much as all the cool Christians. But why not add some wondrous angelic choirs? Perhaps a little less grit? A different stable setup? Or maybe even — gasp — the Christmas star’s white light beaming into the stable, bringing the early arrival of Magi, and magic?