Only the Gospel of Luke gives us a manger scene, and we love it. It has become a standard part of our Christmas decorations. But if our manger scenes were modeled strictly after what Luke tells us, they would be quite sparse. There would be Mary and Joseph, and of course, the baby Jesus in a manger, and some shepherds. That’s it.
The nativity scene at our house has only one shepherd, but a couple of sheep have followed him from the fields to the stable, and the shepherd has another one draped around his neck. The very earliest commentaries on Luke’s text assume there must have been some animals in the stable; after all, what else are stables for? So, standing by in our home nativity scene are a cow and a donkey, or, as tradition knows them, an ox and an ass.1
But tradition has added other livestock as well. Recently, I decided to take inventory of the animals in the stable from the various legends, folk songs, poems, carols, and Christmas cards I have seen: they include (in addition to the sheep, the ox, and the ass) a mule, a camel, a rooster, a cuckoo, some doves and other small birds, two rabbits, a goose, a pig, goat, colt, cat, dog, and a mouse. No wonder a theologian of an earlier generation suggested that a modern manger scene might well include Dr. Doolittle’s “pushmi-pullyu.”
These same sources multiply the human visitors to the stable, as well. Matthew’s magi have been imported into most manger scenes, as suggested by the camel mentioned above (also traditional, since the Bible never mentions camels in connection with the magi). The Appalachian folk song “Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head,” tells us that “milkmaids left their fields and flocks, to sit beside the ass and ox.” This gets some women, besides Mary, into the stable. (Maybe they’re responsible for the line “Cheese from the dairy bring we for Mary” that sneaks into an early English song.) And let’s be sure to bring in the little drummer boy.
Of course, if our nativity scene is a live children’s pageant, we’ll have to have a whole gaggle of angels—little girl angels with tinsel halos. We might need a stable the size of a small gymnasium before we’re finished.
Holding a Mystery
Why this compulsion to crowd so many creatures into the stable? Folklorists would tell us that old and important stories just naturally attract legendary embellishments, and that is often the case. But I wonder if there isn’t something deeper and more meaningful going on in these additions to Luke’s stable. Maybe we’re trying to say that this little manger holds a mystery so big and so wonderful that everything and everybody is affected by it. It is as though all created beings, divine, human, and subhuman, need to be represented at the stable. After all, if the whole creation is affected by sin, the whole creation has a stake in the birth of the Savior.
This notion, found among early church theologians, is exploited to great effect by thoughtful poets, storytellers, and painters, who are often our best theologians. William Dunbar, a Scots poet (c. 1460–c. 1530) devotes a poem of 56 lines, “On the Nativity of Christ,” to bidding all of the elements of creation, from “archangels, angels, and dominions” to “flowers, from the root” and “all fish in flood and fowl of flight” to honor the newborn Son. Figuratively, Dunbar brings all of creation, “heaven, earth, sea, man, bird, and beast,” into the stable. In poems, songs, and paintings, all these creatures are not only in the stable, they are also focused on the child, sometimes even kneeling before the manger.
Thomas Hardy’s famous poem “The Oxen” relates the old country folk belief that, at midnight on Christmas Eve, all the farm animals fall upon their knees.
In his poem, “A Christmas Hymn,” Richard Watson Gilder asks,
Tell me, how may I join in this Holy feast
With all the kneeling world
And I of all the least?
Not a bad question for all of us to ask during this Advent and Christmas season.
1Probably based on the many biblical texts that reference an ox and an ass together, especially Isaiah 1:3, “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib” (Revised Standard Version).
Robert F. Hull Jr. is professor of New Testament, emeritus, at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee.