Over the next month, I'll be offering thoughts on the Nativity set model (a large papercraft crèche that you can find and download here:
Religion has always been a lightning rod for fanfiction and headcanons. Just like folks have spent the last hundred years writing Sherlock Holmes pastiches to explain inconsistencies in the stories or focus on a mentioned case never brought to light, religious scholars have filled scrolls and codexes and manuscripts and books with stories meant to better illuminate those found in scripture. Some of these stem from a desire to explain away questions that inevitably arise from close readings (Genesis’s Lilith, Numbers’s floating water rock, etc), some from cataloguing stories that sprung up in folk tradition or from an absence of enough narrative to satiate the public’s desire for more (the Infancy Gospels).
When it comes to Christmas, we see a lot of this. For example: the inkeeper who turns away the Holy Family but permits them to stay in the stable? Not in the Bible. He (or she) is a narrative invention, filling the gaps in the story. It doesn’t conflict with the Gospel, it adds to it, and allows for another hook upon which to hang specific theological messages (and the innkeeper is the recipient of some specific ones). Over the centuries, many characters have been added, expanded upon, or codified in order to give the story more depth, clarity, or meaning to those who have told it.
The first nativity crèche, assembled in 1223 by St Francis of Assisi, was created in an atmosphere in which there was a great deal of post-biblical tradition assigned to the stories of Jesus, some of it now long-abandoned in mainstream American Protestantism. In the write-ups that I’ll be doing over the next few days, I’ll pull from a variety of sources to present a nativity in the spirit of those medieval sentiments, using the Bible, apocryphal scripture, regional tradition, narratives, and carols. These were in the forefront of my mind when designing my versions of the characters, and I hope that they succeed in my purpose: to make the familiar story of Christmas unfamiliar, and remind those who wish to reflect on it just how strange, magical, ancient, and foreign a story it is.
I want to convey my thanks to writer, scholar, fellow Kentuckian, and renowned Christmas pundit Benito Cereno , to whom I reached out when undertaking this project. Benito suggested some of the characters that I included in the series and I likely wouldn’t have known about them (or at least their cultural connection to the Nativity) without his guidance.