A Rustic Nativity

Happy 9th day of Christmas. I hope this season has been full of joy, cookies, peace, and good company. For truly we have something absolutely beautiful to celebrate. God became man. Whoa! The God that made the world, and came before the world came into the creation.

Incarnation. Truly crazy.

We have enjoyed the beautiful Christmastide with our daughter, but her opinions and play have definitely added a new component to our celebrations.


Throughout the Advent and the Christmas season we have put together a paper nativity scene. Anna has daily and joyfully chosen the colors for our new characters and placed each new piece into the scene with enthusiasm. This set from do small things with love has been perfect for us this year.

A new nativity perspective

Funnily enough, Anna has shown favoritism toward the animals in our nativity scene. Often as she passes by the scene, she will kindly ask abruptly throw the shepherds, wise men, or angels to the ground. We have tried to teach her to be kind and gentle with the pieces of the nativity set, so now she just moves them to a different place away from the stable scene.

We made a big deal about placing Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in the scene on Christmas Day, so she tends to leave them alone. But despite my best efforts, any other human creature has been slowly removed. Anna likes to point to each animal and tell me the noise they make and arrange them all just so.

So the last 9 days as I have walked past our nativity scene I have seen a slightly different picture than I am accustom to. The holy family with a bunch of animals. Anna’s unorthodox arrangement has provided for something meaty to ponder.


The animals of the stable

Each piece of the nativity has powerful and valuable meaning. The wise men reminding us that Jesus came to save Jews and Gentiles alike, the gifts each symbolizing a different role of the incarnation. The angels signifying that this is no mere child, but the God of the universe. The shepherds reminding us both of the metaphor of Jesus as our shepherd and the accessibility of Jesus to people of all walks of life. Each character’s meaning is vast and important, the reflections could go on and on. But this year I have dwelt on the more wild members of the nativity scene. Bringing to mind some common christmas carol lyrics that mention the animals gathered for the birth of Christ.

“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes…” – Away in a Manager

“Between an ox stall and an ass, This Child truly there born he was; For want of clothing they did him lay All in a manger, among the hay. Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel.” – The First Noel

“Why lies He in such mean estate, Where ox and ass are feeding? Good christians, fear, for sinners here The silent Word is pleading.”- What Child Is This


In our nativity set we have some cattle, sheep, a donkey, and a cat. Luke is the only Gospel that narrates the birth of Jesus and no animals are mentioned at all. The gospel makes clear that Mary gave birth and laid Jesus in a manger; because there was no room for them in the guest house (Luke 2:7). Despite any mention of specific animals or conditions, we can assume a few details through biology, history, and tradition.


Antoniazzo RomanoThe Nativity, late 15th century.

Right side, lid of the Sarcophagus of Crispina, 4th cent.

lid of the Sarcophagus of Crispina, 4th cent.

Mangers are meant to feed animals, this means that Mary gave birth in an area meant for animals. Some say a cave, stable, first floor of a house, or some combination of all three. Whichever it was, we can be sure that the space held animals. An ox and ass appear in nativity images very early on. This may be a reference to Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah 1:3, in which an ox and ass adore the child. I did a little researching and found that archaeologically, the most commonly depicted nativity livestock, cows, sheep, and donkeys, were domesticated and present in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth. Thus it is possible that they could have been witnesses at the Nativity. The same research shows that these fuzzy animals would have brought along with them many creepy crawling friends like lice, mice, rats, and buzzing biting flies. Not to mention feces.

This was one rustic birth scene. This holy family definitely had dirt under their fingernails and torn hems in their cloaks. Nevertheless, this is the picture of incarnation. The God of the universe, worthy of all praise, chose to join the literal muck of this world.

 Nativity, May 18, 2006 Photo by Jaimie Trueblood

Often we imagine the peaceful and serene image of Jesus being placed in the hay. Truly this must have been a holy moment and scripture does describe Mary placing Jesus in a manger, but this was not a hip handmade bassinet, it was an animal dish, used chiefly to hold water or food for livestock. Joseph probably had to scoop out old food and dirt before laying the newborn in the box.

But why a humble entrance?

My mind goes down a rabbit hole when I try to imagine all of the realities of the nativity scene. Smells, Bugs, itchiness and all. Ultimately, Jesus did not enter the poverty of this world without reason and purpose, so what is the purpose? Madeleine L’Engle suggests that “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.” Jesus shows us that in the midst of this literal dirt we can find the sacred.

As a surprise to the 1st century Jews, the divine becoming incarnate did not look like any of the royal kings they were accustomed to. With our twenty-first century bird’s-eye view, it is easy to look down on the Jewish expectation that the messiah would be an earthly king, but every generation has to grapple with the question of why. Why was the mighty messiah not be born a majestic king? Why not be born and placed in a gold cradle with clean blankets? The songs of the Angels remind us that truly this is God, and does he not deserve everybody of honor we can muster up? 


The true king of the universe being born a human looks the exact opposite of how most would imagine. This is the first of many times that Jesus turns our ideas, expectations, and norms upside down. The glory of God looks qualitatively different than we might expect.

Anna’s playful nativity opinions force me to dwell on the idea that Christ was born a baby in a cold and animal filled stable. We have a God who in every way knows the inconveniences of human life. Not because he isn’t worthy of everything good and beautiful, but because God does not see the poor, helpless, or dirty as worthless or undesirable. This, dirty, smelly, real stable is where Jesus chose to be made known.

“Action is always superior to speech in the Gospels, which is why the Word became flesh and not newsprint.” ― Colin M. Morris

Lets be honest here, my home is often messy. This rustic holy family reminds me that Jesus wants to joyfully enter our lives, homes, jobs, and families, exactly as they are. To be apart of the everyday grind, not in spite of the mess, but making the mess a holy experience.

When we see the animals by the manager, let us consider the less than ideal circumstances of our life where we can allow Christ’s glory to shine.



  1. Love the Madeliene L’engle quote! She was always one of my favorite writers growing up. What a smart lady. Thanks for the interesting read Amy.

  2. I think babies and toddlers have a special bond with animals because they can’t talk, so they figure out how to understand and communicate with each other in more fundamental and personal ways. Perhaps the Nativity animals provided that unspoken truth to Mary and Joseph. No words would hve been adequate ….

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