The live nativity.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 December

Because nothing says Christmas like a sanitized reenactment of childbirth.

Evangelicals celebrate Christmas in all sorts of ways. Some of us decorate like crazy; some don’t. Some of us preach nothing but advent or birth-of-Jesus sermons; some preach as they’d usually do, and only preach a Christmas sermon on Christmas. Some of us have a special Christmas production; some don’t, or would if we could staff it (or afford it).

Two of the larger churches in my town do a “live nativity.” If you’re a newbie, or somehow never paid attention to Christendom all your life, this’d be a birth-of-Christ diorama with live humans instead of the typical lit plastic statues on the front lawn. (There’s an inflatable version now! But I digress.) Actors portray Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the magi, and in many children’s productions the animals. Although these two churches prefer actual animals. And use the same animals; in the proper spirit of Christian cooperation, their productions are on different weekends, so they don’t overlap.

From last night’s live nativity. Nope, blurring all their faces wasn’t deliberate; my phone can only do so much.

To my knowledge these churches have always used a baby to portray Jesus. It’s not all that hard to get one: Round February, start nudging all the young families in the congregation. “Come on, people! Give us a baby Jesus!” But the baby doesn’t have to be a newborn, although it kinda spoils the effect if the “newborn King” doesn’t need “Mary” to support his head.

Sometimes a baby won’t work. Outdoor performances might get so cold, Child Protective Services might wish to intervene. Or the church isn’t large enough to come up with a baby every year. Or the baby doesn’t wanna. For any number of reasons you might wind up with a doll. Or, if you’re going the special-effects route, a lightbulb. Last year it was something hidden in a bundle of blankets, rocked throughout; could’ve been a canned ham for all we knew.

I went to both productions. One’s called “A Night in Bethlehem,” which is designed to represent first-century BC Bethlehem, with shops and “smiths” and “Roman soldiers” and “lepers” and, for some reason, dancers—a string of people who’d dance through “town.” People you could interact with, who might tell you something historical if they know it. (Though speaking as an historian… well, they were close enough.) Every half hour, Jesus got “born” in a stable conveniently placed near the entrance. Born again and again and again. With “prophets” placed nearby so they could tell you, in English and Spanish, why this birth is a big deal.

The other’s a musical performance. (“Night in Bethlehem” had no singing.) They knock out six of ’em over the weekend; I attended the fifth. We, the guests, watched from bleachers. They always have a sketch which introduces the nativity story and reminds people of “the reason for the season.” They have a choir, who included “angels” on the roof of the church, singing some forgettable songs to a CD of background music. The only song they don’t switch up is Robert Sterling and Chris Machen’s white gospel song “I Have Seen the Light,” sung by the magi every year, which never fails to remind me of karaoke. The pastor preached a brief evangelistic Christmas message. Then we were invited to sing a Christmas carol medley, and were outa there before the next performance.

Yep, I’ve done a few of these.

I grew up Christian, so of course I’ve been in churches who put together a nativity play. As a boy, I got to play a shepherd in our kids’ production. I think I was too noisy to play a sheep. (Still am.)

More of my childhood performances were in public school. There, in order to avoid offending the non-Christians in the district, we kept everything strictly secular: Songs about reindeer, and a slapdash third-grade production of A Christmas Carol where I got to play Tiny Tim. (By “slapdash” I mean the teacher let us carry our scripts on stage, and for “costumes” we wore our socks over our pant legs to simulate old-timey breeches—about 80 years too late, but what did we know. I was the only one whose lines were actually memorized, but to be fair, my only line was “God bless us, every one!” which I said twice.)

So it wasn’t till adulthood that I really contributed to nativity performances. Usually setup and audiovisual: Pastors found out when I act, I overact, and you’re really just supposed to stand there and look holy. The last one I was in was 1999, at my church’s drive-thru nativity. We set up and lit several dioramas in our parking lot. Motorists would pull up; I’d give ’em an audio cassette or CD of the Christmas story—telling ’em where to drive to next; the kids would tape over their running lights; and off they went from diorama to diorama. The folks portraying the Holy Family in the dioramas had to suck on a few exhaust fumes, but hey, you gotta suffer for Jesus somehow.

All these productions, without fail, are sanitized. This means they never really go for historical accuracy or realism. Even the “Night in Bethlehem,” much as they tried to provide interesting facts about life in ancient Judea, were mighty selective with those facts. They don’t want the horrors of real life to get in the way of the story.

You will never see a live nativity—unless it’s meant to be comedic, campy, insulting, or ironic—actually show Mary go through childbirth. Never. First she’s pregnant, and ushered in on a donkey as Joseph (and someone else who’s helping “Mary” not fall off the donkey) frantically searches for an inn. Then she vanishes from view for a bit. Then she reappears with baby Jesus. No screaming, no crying, no midwives. And if there’s a real baby portraying Jesus, she or he never does get put in the manger, ’cause the baby would immediately cry, and we can’t have that.

You also rarely see what happens after the magi leave, when King Herod freaked out and had his troops slaughter all the two-year-olds in Bethlehem while Joseph and Mary grabbed the quickest boat to Egypt. I’ve known one production to dare try it, and it freaked out all the children in the audience. Sometimes it gets a mention, but since it tends to spoil the mood, it’s rare.

See, that’s why these productions are censored: Gotta keep the happy Christmas mood. Gotta think about the children.

So they’re not meant to depict reality. Just represent the nicer bits of it. Resemble the flannelgraphs in Sunday school; not actual middle easterners. We tell the Christmas story just like we share fairy tales: We get the outline from the bible, but since the details are icky, we scrub it down and westernize it so it’s a barn, not a cave; with kings, not Zoroastrian astrologers; with winged white girls in shiny robes, not burning heavenly serpents with six wings (and now you know why the shepherds were scared witless). Mary never even broke a sweat. It’s maybe two-thirds of the whole story. Of course if you converted two-thirds to a letter grade, that’d be a D.

But be fair; no church gets this right. Even the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem skips a few details. If you were to actually show authenticity, the audience would be so unfamiliar with history, they’d think the whole thing was wrong. Happens every time I write an article which includes historical details. Happens every year, when around Christmas and Easter the press stumbles across such articles and freaks out. In different years past, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope both did this, and the press made a major to-do about it: “So you’re saying the magi weren’t really three kings? And that they didn’t show up at Jesus’s birth, but years later? Why, this changes everything.” No; it changes nothing. It’s all right there in the bible. But people don’t read their bibles.

How were they?

I’ll review them. Why not?—the local productions are over, so nobody will be driven away from seeing ’em.

First of all, what works. Both productions present the gospel during the show, inviting people to follow Jesus. (You can’t call yourself an Evangelical if you don’t bother to do this. We’re sharing Jesus here!) They do it every year, and should.

Problem is—speaking as someone who’s done a bit of evangelism—I honestly don’t know a live nativity is an effective evangelistic outreach. People go to these things because it’s Christmastime, and you gotta see one of these performances before Christmas. Just like you’ve gotta see Rudolph the Red-Nosed Raindeer and It’s a Wonderful Life and Elf every year. And decorate the house. And fill stockings. And cook a roast. And watch midnight mass on TV while you rig the house to look like Santa’s been there. And all your other personal traditions.

Now if you’re not Christian, you’re not likely to include Christ among your personal traditions. Maybe see Santa at the mall; maybe kill the front lawn with inflatable reindeer; and like the Christians there are certain can’t-miss Christmas movies like Die Hard. But you wouldn’t go to a live nativity; you’d think it mythology and ridiculous. Hence most of the audience, at both functions I attended, were fellow Christians.

There are always exceptions. Like the pagan relatives who get dragged to these things because “the family always goes, and it’ll be neat!” Like the pagan parents who figure, “Y’know, this holiday’s about Christ and we oughta do something to acknowledge that, but I don’t wanna sit through some boring church service… Hey, this church is doing a live nativity. Let’s go look at that.” Like the high school friends of the kids who portray Mary and Joseph this year, who come out of curiosity. However pagans get there.

Still, pagans know the Christmas story. (They see Linus recite it every year on A Charlie Brown Christmas.) They figure they’re kinda Christian, or at least good enough for heaven, and don’t really go in search of Jesus—they sorta know where he is.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t present the gospel. Of course we should. Always. But if you’re under any impression a live nativity legitimately counts as outreach… well, you suck at outreach.

Fact is, churches initially put together live nativities because somebody in that church wanted to put on a show. Thereafter, they do it because “we’ve always done one,” and they look forward to being part of the the production. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. A show is a fun way to celebrate Christmas. It’s worship. But don’t assume it’s much more than that. For those joyless Christians who say, “Shouldn’t we spend more money on evangelism?” we tack on evangelism: There y’go.

The acting: Oh, there really wasn’t any. In the singing nativity, they have a narrator (the pastor, one of the magi, someone depicting Mary when she’s older; this year it was a “radio host”) talking about “the reason for the season,” telling the nativity story. But acting isn’t really a part of that show. Much greater emphasis was put on the singing. In the “Night in Bethlehem” depiction, the only people with actual lines were the “prophets,” and they weren’t even trying for historical accuracy; they were trying to get decisions for Christ. All they needed to know was the gospel. As prophets should.

The singing: The choir was fine, though not awe-inspiringly amazing. They committed the usual egregious sin of letting children solo, not because they were good, but because it’s meant to be cute, and it’s really not.

The magi had their number, and like I said, they always remind me of karaoke. One of the magi kept committing one of my personal peeves: He liked to wince whenever he sang certain notes, as if he’s not just singing the song, but birthing it. It’s an affectation I find entirely phony: Dude, you don’t even have a uterus. Of course I’m kidding; if it turns out he actually herniated something and was singing despite raging pain, I’m gonna feel terrible. But if that’s the case, people, use that pain to amp up your vibrato. He didn’t.

Having the spectators sing the Christmas medley was okay. Lots of Christians really can’t watch musical performances without, at some point, wanting to sing along if we know the song. That is, after all, how we act in church. So it’s a nice thing to throw in there. I would’ve included song lyrics on the programs, or snuck a projector into the set design, just in case anyone was unfamiliar with the songs—though very few are. But that’s just me.

Lighting and sound: Good and good. I like the fake torches in “Night in Bethlehem.” They oughta permanently install those things on the front of church buildings. Make the church look medieval and badass.

The sets: The singing nativity had a few touches which made it look like the church put time and effort into it. But the stable was depicted (as usual) by an outline of hay bales. Zero privacy for childbirth.

The “Night in Bethlehem” largely consisted of wooden stalls for the shops, which reminded me more of grade school carnivals than actual Bethlehem. (I’ve been to actual Bethlehem, so it kinda gives the church an impossible standard to live up to.)

Both nativities had animals, but kept ’em a safe distance from one another by their handlers, who wisely stayed with them the entire time, in costume.

The musical selections: Pure audio mayonnaise.

Here’s the rant you knew was coming.

No, “pure audio mayonnaise” isn’t a compliment. Every year, the musical numbers are taken from one of the many Christmas pageants sold by music-publishing companies. They consist of five or six different choir songs, with a CD of full-orchestra backing tracks. If you’re the music pastor, all you need do is choose one of these pageants for your church’s Christmas production, and make your choir practice it five or six times to get the bigger bugs out. Then inflict it upon the public.

I grew up Christian, so I’ve seen such productions just about every year. When I went to big churches, we did ’em every Christmas and Easter. I’ve grown to dislike them very, very much. They’re seldom good songs, which is why they never achieved popularity nor familiarity; no contemporary Christian artist ever bothered to adopt and perform them, so getting bundled in a production was the best they could ever do. They involve no creative ability on anyone’s part. They involve little musical ability on the choir’s part. They require no live musicians. To be blunt, they’re karaoke. Just on a grander scale.

Hence it’s not actually a live musical performance. Yes, there are live singers, but there isn’t live music. The audience was listening to a CD. In some parts we could hear the CD better than the choir: The audio guys had the volume cranked up nice and loud, so as to drown out any of the singers’ flaws. I used to believe the audio guys overcranked the volume because they couldn’t monitor the sound levels and didn’t know what they were doing. I learned better when I got into multimedia: The singers ask for audio tricks like this, because they lack confidence in their own talent. And they usually shouldn’t. But they do.

Now with live accompanists, suddenly there’s a give-and-take between the singers and musicians. It immediately—and significantly—changes the atmosphere of the room. (Or courtyard.) And frankly, any church who can amass a 50-person choir, who can afford to rent a camel, can find a bloody pianist and shift the focus of the performance from the overloud CD to the live performers. Then you got something there.

As it was… it was just okay. It usually is. And the audience appears to be perfectly fine with okay. Not a lot of people truly appreciate music, so to them, karaoke is just as good as any live performance. They really couldn’t tell you why the atmosphere is so very different, and why they enjoy it so much more, when you use live musicians. They never think of it. So they don’t miss it.