Rev. A.J. Beavers
Using Family Nativity Sets in the Time of the Scattered Church
While the coronavirus will mean that there won’t be many Christmas pageants this year in churches, there is an opportunity to have a Christmas pageant at home using your nativity sets. They can also provide a wonderful way for the whole family to celebrate the season. These nativity sets (or crèches) are three dimensional representations of the birth of Christ. Most sets come as individual pieces which, like actors in a play, can be moved around, in and out of different scenes.
Here are some suggestions for using your nativity sets for enrichment during this Scattered Church Advent.
Pray. Use the components of your nativity set as a springboard for prayers. Pray as you unbox your set that its presence in your home might prove to be meaningful and enrich your anticipation and celebration of the birth of Jesus.
Perhaps the first thing that you will put out is the stable or shelter and that will remind you to be thankful for yourshelter. Remember that the Holy Family had no shelter, so you might pray for all those refugees and homeless who will have no shelter tonight.
You might consider not placing all the characters out at once but spacing them out by days. As each one is removed from storage, you can read a little scripture or say a prayer appropriate to that character. For example: for animals you might pray for the humane treatment of animals; shepherds might lead you to pray for the people on the margins of society, or the people who are looked down on by others; kings may remind you of leaders and powerful people of the world, who need prayers for wisdom and humility so that they might come worship the Child. Other prayer prompts might occur when you remember that Joseph is a man and a father, Mary is a mother and a woman, and Jesus is a baby born without the comforts of home. Angels can remind you of those people in your life who have been messengers of God to you.
Play. Since the figures are movable, they can be part of your Christmas pageant. In many traditions Baby Jesus only appears on Christmas Day, and this adds to the anticipation of his birth. In our home we have a number of nativity sets, and if Jesus is removable, we hide him away until Christmas Morning. I know some families who put Jesus in the manger, either on Christmas Eve right before the children go to bed, or on Christmas morning. (When they were little, my granddaughters would search around the house during Advent trying to find where all the Jesus figures were hidden.)
While nativity sets often come with a photo showing all the characters at the manger, they didn’t all arrive there at the same time. You can create different scenes from the gospels in various locals around the house. Change them a little each day, moving them ever closer to the manger while also practicing the patient waiting of Advent. Mary and Joseph, and perhaps their donkey, can inch across table tops and windowsills to join all the animals already in the barn. The shepherds and their sheep can be bookshelved on a “hill side” with the angels until they come to see the Baby. Since the church doesn’t celebrate the arrival of the Magi until January sixth, your Wise Men can start at the eastern edge of your house and slowly work their way toward the Manger. When our children were growing up, the camels and Wise Men sometimes even took the train around the Christmas tree! Some traditions add “straw” to the Manger by adding some rosemary leaves or pieces of pine needles - one a day, or one for every good deed that's done that day. It’s a tangible way to say we are preparing a place for Jesus.
Why limit the characters in your pageant to the ones that came with your set? (I don’t just mean the Little Drummer Boy.) Four hundred years ago, when nativity sets began to be used in homes, they included biblical characters but also townspeople. After all, it's not just the shepherds and the Magi who come to worship the King -- it's each one of us, at all times and in all places. The figures who come to celebrate his birth don’t have to look and dress like the 18thCentury Italians of many sets. Perhaps your children have other figures which might come to pay homage to the newborn King, such as dolls and action figures. Your family can make worshipers as well as the vehicles they arrive in and the gifts they bring out of Legos. Let every family member imagine who might come to greet the newborn King. Don’t exclude toy soldiers or villains. Jesus wouldn’t. The world might look different if all types of people – crooks, villains, soldiers- left their daily lives and journeyed to honor Jesus! Don’t forget the toy animals (even the ones extinct or imaginary). In crèches from around the world, animals native to that particular culture giraffes or water buffaloes are often part of those sets.
Is your family nativity too fragile? Your family could have fun making a simple one. The internet has examples using ordinary materials.
Ponder. In most Protestant homes the only visible representation of Jesus is in a nativity set. Holding Him and each of the characters can be a powerful way to make the biblical story come alive. Along with a prayer upon unpacking each figure, each person could hold the character and share what they imagine the figure’s life was like before and after their visit to the manger. They can imagine how their character felt when they first saw the baby.
Perhaps you have a nativity set which was made in a different country and uses the characteristics and dress of that country. Many traditionally European nativity sets have the Holy Family dressed as First Century Jews, while everyone else in the scene is dressed in the style current when the set was first made. This reminds us that while Jesus first came to Bethlehem, we all come to Bethlehem in our time. You might try to find out some of the holiday traditions of the countries represented through your nativity set.
Pageant. A pageant could involve the whole family. Encourage the children to put on a Christmas Play using the nativity set and their other toys. They will learn the story better.
Consider scenery. In the 1930s, Mr. Woolworth imported figures and Italian stables that could be easily displayed and easily stored. For this reason, most nativities in US homes are pretty barren, but those in Europe and Central and South America have all sorts of other decorations. Your family could make a stable, a barn, an inn where there is no room. You could add hay bales, buckets and tools. You could make hills and backgrounds and, with a shoe box, turn your Nativity into a diorama.
Consider a script. It doesn’t have to be written out, but you will want to assign actors for both the speaking and moving parts.
Don’t forget the grandparents and extended family members who would like to virtually attend your child’s Christmas Pageant. Video it or, better yet, make it an interactive Zoom event. Perhaps a few families could meet on line and each share their nativities.
In additional to a pageant, you might consider an extended advent wreath ritual. Before you light the advent candle, add a character or two to a nativity scene. Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, when Baby Jesus is brought out, can be a great time of rejoicing and singing. In the Provence region of France, it is a custom for the children on Christmas Eve to pray to Jesus asking for the good characteristics of each of the characters in the creche: to be as strong as the ox, as gentle as the lamb, as wise as the Magi, as joyful as the drummer, etc.
Finally, keep in mind that the purpose for nativity sets is to engage the imagination in order to enrich and deepen our faith during the season. And please use all the days of Christmas, not just the 25th. If you really want to be a crèchepurist, keep your nativity up until February second, when the Presentation in the Temple is celebrated!
This is the irrational season when love blooms bright and wild. Had Mary been filled with reason there’d have been no room for the child. After Annunciation, by Madeleine L’Engle
Rev. A.J. Beavers, November 2020