Nativity Sets, like quite a lot of religious iconography, are interesting. Icons, be they religious or secular, function to express our highest cultural ideals, and so end up saying more about the culture of the people who produce them than the realities they purport to depict. We’re all familiar with the now almost comical blonde haired, blued eyed images of Jesus and the upset caused at our first exposure to depictions of an African Christ. None of this sacred art ever said much about the historical Jesus who himself was neither a Nordic northern European nor a sub-Saharan African, but a first century eastern Mediterranean Jew.

In the most innocent reading of these ethnically specific renderings of Christ we might argue that they were produced by ethnically specific Christian societies which wished to portray the Christ as like them; as one of them, and this would not be inconsistent with the Truth of the Incarnation where in Jesus of Nazareth God became one of us – in the most general sense. A problem arises, however, when these historically inaccurate representations, due to the shifting tides of empire and nationalism, become the normative and exportable (and impossible) image of God incarnate.


Our familiar and harmless Nativity Set is then no different from the Adonis-like figure on the crucifix, the effeminate and sullen Sacred Heart, or the imperial Greco-Slavic Hristos Pantocrator. It reproduces and imposes not the Holy Family of Bethlehem, to which we have no historical access, but the perfect family defined by our present and accepted local and social norms. Looking over the window Nativities of Dublin it was interesting to see what was variable within these acceptable norms and what was not. One of the most beautiful – in my opinion – was a gorgeous little pottery Nativity of caricatured Native North Americans. Indeed the birth of God in humanity was and is for all humanity, but it was amusing to see that this infant retained his northern European hair colour.


More interesting – to me – was the Nativity where the Minions from Despicable Me had shown up. Why not?! It was clear that this was in a child’s room, but a child’s room where an adult (presumably a parent) had introduced a certain political perspective. This more traditional Nativity I found strangely ironic. Where the younger decorator had brought along his or her little yellow friends, and the parent had emblazoned the window with a Marriage Equality campaign sticker, the traditional family had been preserved. Is it really too early to have Mary and Josephine in the stable with their newborn child?


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