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A Burning Nativity Question

‘Tis the season for yard decorations, and it seems like every year, in addition to folks going bigger and brighter, there’s a new trend.

I won’t bore you by going too far into the “holiday decoration archives” because I’m sure I can sufficiently bore you with a couple recent references, like projected images that move around on the side of the house or garage; or inflatables, which are getting bigger not only in their popularity, but in their actual sizes. (On one street near us, you’d swear the folks were re-enacting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.)

Then, there are endless types of light displays and systems, some even set to music. The range and scope of these displays stretch from the ridiculous to the sublime. Every year, I’m floored by how much time, effort and money some people are willing to spend. Not judging, mind you. After all, if that’s your thing, I say go for it.

For us, we keep it low-key: a string or two of white lights across the roofline of the garage, an artsy, classy-looking snowman on the porch, a couple of wreaths and lighted oversized snowflakes, and we call it a day. It’s a nice nod to the season without requiring all the hassle, planning, expense, time and storage space of some of the more elaborate yard setups I’ve seen.

But of all the inflatables, LED-lighting systems (which I’m sure can be programmed and controlled by an app), the “family heirloom” displays that have been passed down for generations, and the rooftop Santas and reindeer that range in appearance from cartoonish to “Oh my God, is that an eight-point buck in the Franklins’ yard?”, I believe the Nativity Scene can be the trickiest.

It’s a story as old as … well, Christmas (duh). And without sounding sacrilegious or downplaying the significance of the story (seriously, I mean no harm here), the recipe for this most original and classic yard decoration is right there in the Bible: one young couple, one baby, one manger (which for those of you don’t know or never thought to ask, is a feeding trough for cattle and such), three visitors (presumably male), and various farm animals, all gathered under a gazebo of sorts.

Again, I won’t bore you with the story since we all know it, even those who don’t celebrate Christmas, or at least don’t celebrate this part of it as much as the “rooftop Santa and cartoon-y reindeer” part.

Anyway, while the instructions for the Nativity display are relatively straightforward (unless, of course, you purchased yours from IKEA), the look and feel become the tricky part. Now, I realize that getting into the weeds on something as Biblical as a Nativity Scene, along with the people involved (your Mary, your Joseph, your Baby Jesus, etc.) could lead to some tension between this writer and portions of his audience. Let the record reflect I do not seek to offend, and I do NOT in any way oppose Nativity Scenes or those who display them.

That said, I do wonder about a Nativity I saw recently.

It had all the ingredients listed above, and it was nicely planned and designed. The animals all sat or stood under the gazebo, the wise “people” were placed respectfully along the back perimeter (accompanied by their pack animals and holding their respective gifts), and a sufficient but not excessive amount of straw had been scattered throughout the scene.

It was, in a word, nice by Nativity standards. (That’s coming from someone who is neither a Nativity connoisseur nor a Bible expert).

The “headliners” of the show (the young family with the newborn, and you’ll see in a moment why I use the term “headliners”) were stationed front and center, several paces closer to the street from the visitors and the animals: mother standing with newborn in her arms, proud father looking on.

Nothing out of the ordinary by way of story or yard display, right?

Here’s the kicker, the thing that caught my eye: Mary and Joseph were dead ringers for Carly Simon and James Taylor, so much so that I looked to see if the Wise Men were Crosby, Stills and Nash.

To reiterate, I mean NO disrespect to anyone as I tell this story, including devout Christians, Carly Simon, James Taylor or Crosby, Stills and Nash or their fans. I’m simply telling you what I saw and noting that it was interesting that whoever designed and created this particular Nativity thought Mary and Joseph “might just look a bit like two of the most prolific singer-songwriters of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.” (For the record, the Wise Men did NOT look like CS&N, but I will refrain from telling you what they did look like just to cool any hot water into which I may have already immersed myself.)

Short story is this (for me, anyway): When it comes to decorations, the use of Santas, reindeer, snowmen and women, lights and all the other secular stuff is easy: “Go big, go bright and go ballistic” because there are no rules.

But when it comes to the Nativity Scene, the very story that defines Christmas in two of the four Gospels (and like it or not, the story that spawned all the secular stuff so many of us enjoy, and there’s nothing wrong with that in my opinion), I think that’s a tricky game to play because there’s no “right way” to do it, but I feel there are many, many wrong ways. Does that make sense?

Is a Nativity made with Legos a creative way to present the story; a learning opportunity for young “church folk,” or is it disrespectful, minimizing the gravity of the situation? Or (and I’ve seen this), what if I run across a Nativity comprised of dogs? Or re-creations of members of my favorite sports team? Creative and respectful or sacrilegious? My answer is two-fold: 1) I don’t know and 2) I guess, like so many other things, it depends on the audience.

Now, while I’m no Bible expert or catechist, one thing I know is that Jesus’ mom and dad weren’t Carly Simon and James Taylor doppelgangers. That said, when I saw them, it did stop me and make me (a non-religious type, but we won’t get into that right now) look deeper into the scene, drawing me in, making me study it (without, of course, making it seem like I was just the creepy neighbor from down the street looking into someone’s yard).

And maybe that’s a good thing but again, I don’t know, and I’m thinking it depends on who’s seeing it and how they view the situation. All I know is this: those two definitely looked like they could have brought out guitars and broken into song at any moment. Made me want to suggest the homeowner pipe some “Mockingbird” or “You’ve Got A Friend” into the yard, creating an inviting "folksy" vibe.

So, I guess what I'm thinking is this: If I ever decided to display a Nativity in my yard (and chances are slim, but stranger things have happened), I’m thinking I’d want something as accurate as possible (if that is, indeed, possible). Again, not judging anyone; just giving my two cents.

But for everyone involved (Christians and non-), it's probably better if I stick to the secular side of the street, and leave the religious stuff to those who are much more qualified to handle such big questions.

© 2020 David R. Haznaw

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