“Tortoises, flamingos, sea lions, blue-footed boobies… and baby Jesus? Oh my!” I exclaimed. “Sarah! Get back on the tour bus,” my husband implored. I willfully ignored him, eager to document the fascinating nativity scene, which seemed remarkably perfect for an island in the Galapagos.
Although Jesus is the nativity attraction for most people, I’m more intrigued by the animals. During December, our shelves overflow with creche sets from around the world. Shiny black soap-stone kings and camels from Kenya sit beside a German display sporting a donkey. A group from Peru features llamas, while the Alaskan one offers a walrus. And while this tusked mammal may seem logical in the snow-filled scenes we Americans love to display at Christmas, I can say with 100 percent certainty that a walrus was not present in the temperate climate at Jesus’s birth.
Who Was Really at the First Christmas?
We don’t know. The Gospels don’t agree on which humans were present and don’t precisely mention animals. While the book of Matthew suggests wise men, hence the inclusion of camel figurines, the book of Luke mentions shepherds, and so we get sheep.
A much later extracanonical text, referred to as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, adds an ox and donkey to the story—assuredly to link passages from the Jewish scriptures to Jesus’s birth. Pope Benedict was once questioned regarding their presence in a Vatican display. Conceding the animals could not be verified in scripture, he added, “No nativity scene will give up its ox and donkey.” (Unless it’s for a moose or tortoise, I might posit.)
Beyond the animal question, each Biblical account contains very different views of why Jesus’s parents were in Bethlehem and what happened in the days (and years) following his birth. Obviously, we lack any video from this event to try to sort out what really happened. No photos or firsthand interviews either. Instead, we have stories and traditions humans have handed down over millennia.
Who Should Have Been There?
Although religions are often accused of being rigid and unchanging, this is a fallacy. Stories and rituals are ever-changing, with plentiful cultural variations. They are made personal, and people express what they envision in wildly diverse ways. It’s crucial to look at sacred texts and narratives not as infallible historical documents that are fastidiously reported but as clues to what people value.
For example, what does it mean that we have added animals to the Christmas story scene?
On the one hand, the animals could be present to illuminate the occupations of the people they appear with, those who control or care for them. On the other hand, some theologians suggest they are symbols; the lamb is Christ’s innocence, the ox his sacrifice. But, I have more radical ideas. What if the animals subconsciously reflect who we value—which beings we think deserve to be in the presence of divinity?
Constructing a Creche for All Earthlings
A few years ago, while touring my friend Ernesto’s home, I fixated on a strange collection of small sheep figurines in a cabinet. Upon inquiring, I learned they were “left over” from vintage Spanish and German nativity sets. I wondered aloud about the relationships sheep form with people and if they had a connection to a higher power. As a result, Ernesto wrapped up a few to send home with me.
The following year, I placed my new flock beside desert-clay figures of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, who I had purchased as a threesome from the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona. Since they lacked animals, it seemed like a reasonable partnership.
After I visited endangered white lions in South Africa, Jesus gained a cub sibling. They now lie nestled together in a seed-pod manger. Upon returning from the delicate marine ecosystem of the Galapagos, I added a sea turtle and marine iguana. Then, really on a roll, I merged all my creche sets into a single, multicultural, interspecies display. Here comes camel, cat, and walrus.
Although it’s unlikely that any of these creatures attended Jesus’s birth, the scene is increasingly meaningful to me as it evolves, representing the complexity of living in a world full of competing needs and shifting crises. The hodgepodge display ensures I don’t forget the messy histories of holidays. At its heart, Christmas is a story about refugee parents hiding their child from a king they feared. The miracle of Hanukkah comes amid a rebellion tackling conflicts between cultures and religions.
Making religious narratives relevant to the world today means expanding their particularity. For example, becoming informed about displaced families and humanitarian crises in places like Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Myanmar, and Yemen—and what we can do to help. We need to reach out to families in our own communities who are struggling with food insecurity, homelessness, and access to healthcare. And we must consider the hundreds of species disrupted by climate change and the billions of animals distressed by human actions.
If we do, we might catch a glimpse of the path forward to Peace for all Earthlings, regardless of their religion, nationality, ethnicity, or even species. And that, dear readers, could lead to truly happy holidays.