"O Mary, behold these beasts so mild: They offer praise in their manner, Like they were men. In truth, it seems well by their cheer, Their lord they ken."— York Mysteries 14 (translated by Chester N. Scoville and Kimberley M. Yates)
The nativity scene, with its three kings, shepherds, barnyard animals and adorable baby Jesus, is one of the most familiar images of the Christmas season. Although the story has its roots in the Bible, centuries of Christian tradition have added more and more details to create the scene familiar from creches and nativity plays.
The birth of Jesus in the Bible
Many people assume that the story of the birth of Christ is a major subject of the Bible. In fact, only two of the four Gospels talk about the nativity at all, and although they share some information, they approach it in rather different manners. Even so, the core elements of the story are present.
The two main Biblical sources for the birth of Jesus are the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of Mark, which most scholars agree is the earliest of the Gospels, doesn't contain any story about the nativity. Like the Gospel of John, it begins with an older Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, but seem to have reached their stories about Jesus's birth independently or from another source.
Some of the main features of the Christmas story are already present in these sources: Luke tells the story of Jesus being placed in a manger "because there no room at the inn." The story of the shepherds also comes from Luke. Matthew, by contrast, tells the story of the Magi, who come to Bethlehem looking for a king whose coming has been foretold. After meeting and woeshipping the infant Jesus, they give him gifts and return home without betraying him to Herod.
These Gospel accounts were only a few of the numerous accounts of the early years of Jesus circulating among early Christians, but they were the ones selected by the church as being the most authoritative. They contain the core elements of the Christmas story, but certain other elements that would be familiar to the modern eye are missing. There are no animals adoring the infant Christ, and no indication that the story takes place in winter. Although there are Magi, they are not described as kings, and there aren't three of them. Similarly, there are not three shepherds, nor any indication that both shepherds and Magi are present at the same time.
Christmas in the early church
Some major additions to the Christmas story are the product of early church tradition. These include the characters of the Three Kings, as well as the midwinter date of the Christmas celebration.
Early dates for the birth of Christ varied from place to place. Many Christians believed that the birth had happened in the spring, while others placed it in November or at other times. As early as the second century, some Christian writers were placing the date of Jesus's birth in late December based on extrapolation from other dates given in the Bible. By the fourth century, the December 25 date was widespread, although probably not universal, since Christian writers were still writing in favour of it, implying that not everyone was using it. Many Eastern churches placed the birth of Christ on December 25 but did not particularly celebrate the date, preferring to combine Christmas and Epiphany celebrations.
Many people believe that the midwinter date for Christmas was chosen to co-opt an existing pagan festival such as Saturnalia or the birth of Sol Invictus, a Roman sun god. There is no direct evidence for this, but it is certainly true that there were a number of pagan holidays around the time of the winter solstice. It may be that the December 25 date was popular because it would allow Christians to have a festival at the same time as their pagan neighbours or to replace an existing pagan holiday. It may be that Romans and Greeks were simply used to having a holiday in midwinter. Alternatively, it may simply be a coincidence.
Another element of the Christmas story that emerged quickly in the early church is the story of the Three Kings. By around 500 AD the idea that the three Magi were also kings named Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar appears to have been current. The idea that there were three kings may have originated from the fact that Matthew records the Magi as giving Jesus three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Medieval mystery plays
Mystery plays were a medieval tradition in which different groups, often members of a city's trade guilds, would stage plays illustrating stories from the Bible. They didn't necessarily happen on Christmas -- the most famous English example, the York Mysteries, took place on the feast of Corpus Christi, a very popular feast in the middle ages -- but they did talk about the Christmas story. Of the 48 York mystery plays, eight discuss the Christmas story, from the Annunciation to the Massacre of the Innocents.
The tradition of the nativity play itself appears to originate from the medieval mystery plays, as do some elements of the modern nativity scene. In particular, the mystery plays often portray three shepherds, usually as comical everymen equally awed and confused by meeting Jesus. This story in particular celebrated the concept that the birth of the saviour was announced not to the rich and powerful but to simple people.
One of the most famous groups of Christmas plays are the Wakefield Shepherds' Plays, which deal with the adventures of the three shepherds trying to recover a stolen sheep before receiving the message that Christ has been born. When they finally meet the baby Jesus, they give him gifts, but simple gifts that represent their humble social standing: some fruit, a pet bird and a ball. Their offerings are both meant to display humble piety and to get a laugh: one of the shepherds, presenting the ball, says "I bring thee but a ball / have and play thee withal / and go to the tennis." The image of the common shepherd giving Jesus a simple gift is juxtaposed with the ridiculous image of a baby playing tennis.
Similarly, the story of the animals recognising the infant Jesus appears in the York Mysteries. The idea of animals being present seems to have been derived from the presence of a manger in the Gospel of Luke. From this, artists and set designers have usually extrapolated a stable for Mary and Joseph to stay in, although the Church of the Nativity, founded in the 4th century on the site traditionally believed to have been the location of Jesus's birth, is actually built over a cave rather than a stable.
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