Nativity scenes are in the news every Christmas because, reliably, the Baby Jesus is kidnapped from nativities placed outside churches and homes, and in town squares. This year alone, the Bethlehem baby has been stolen from the towns of Pine Grove and Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, Perth in Scotland and Ladywood in Central Birmingham. Even a knitted nativity in the window of a second-hand shop in Basingstoke was lifted. Some churches have responded by installing a GPS tracker in their nativity statues.
The traditional nativity scene is said to have been invented by St Francis of Assisi. He staged a live nativity in a cave in 1223, complete with people and animals, partly as a way of getting people to focus on the birth of Christ, rather than on feasting and gift-giving. His tableau eventually evolved into nativity sets and plays which tell the Bethlehem story.
The nativity scene is a gift which keeps on giving, because it is frequently reinterpreted to deliver different messages. This year has seen two strikingly modern nativities.
The Hipster Nativity Set, made in California, features Joseph taking a selfie, Mary drinking Starbucks, a shepherd with an iPad, and the wise men delivering Amazon gifts on segways. Casey Wright, who created the nativity, which sells online for $129.99, says, ‘We were just talking about how different religious texts would be if set in modern times. It was really kind of a joke that got out of hand.’ This seems to be a nativity which recasts the birth of Christ as a self-regarding, consumer-driven, western event. Possibly it was intended that way, as Wright says ‘It’s not meant to denigrate the religion in any sense. It’s meant to poke fun at our generation.’
Meanwhile, Doctors of the World, an independent humanitarian movement which works with people who are excluded from access to healthcare, has produced a pack of Christmas cards which sets the nativity story in the conflict zones of the modern Middle East.
‘Every Christmas a romanticised picture is presented of the Holy Land of the past, featuring peaceful pastoral images that are shared in homes, churches and high streets across the country,’ says Leigh Daynes, executive director of Doctors of the World. ‘This is completely at odds with the humanitarian crisis that the region faces today. This Christmas we’re asking people to see the realities that we see of the war-torn Middle East, and share some goodwill with a donation to help us give medical aid to people in desperate need.’
The cards show nativity scenes of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, with drones, bombed out buildings and rocket launches.
What is it about the nativity which makes it open to adaptation in so many ways? Jonathan Jones, art critic of the Guardian, believes that nativity paintings (such as Botticelli’s The Mystical Nativity, above), far from being sweet and sentimental, actually contain visual premonitions of suffering and death. Although their images of angels, stables and shepherds have been easily absorbed into modern Christmas, featuring on cards and wrapping paper, they come to us from the religious world in which they were created.
He says: ‘Look a bit harder and the great paintings of the nativity story that we sentimentalise at Christmas are full of death and decay. Some are are literally apocalyptic. Far from soppy, painted equivalents of a modern school nativity play, these paintings are premonitory visions of suffering that invite the most serious of meditations.’
This is perhaps not surprising, because the birth of Christ itself, as written in the Gospels, is not sentimental. It includes a pregnancy out of marriage, a refugee family fleeing from violence, and the death of children at the hands of a powerful ruler, King Herod. The stories also point forward to the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. In one episode, Mary the mother of Jesus is told, ‘A sword will pierce your own soul, too.’
Jonathan Jones concludes: ‘These paintings are about death and resurrection and the shock of revelation. That nativity scene on a card is an opportunity for a moment of meditation amid the tinsel.’
Read the nativity stories in the Gospels: