It’s that time of year again. My kids begged me to set up the Nativity scene in a prominent place in the living room, and even though it was past bedtime, how could I refuse such enthusiasm? They were excited about the true meaning of Christmas.

The next day, I saw my son shooting the birds off the top the stable with his Nerf dart gun. It seems that he was anxious not to celebrate Christ’s birth, but to open the Nativity Shooting Gallery.

I was horrified at first — this seemed wrong in about a million different ways. I made him stop immediately.

Then I started to giggle. When he promised me he wouldn’t shoot baby Jesus or his parents (I think he offered to throw in the wise men, too) I relented, but made him promise not to do it front of any other adults, including me. It still just seemed so wrong.

(Later I realized that one of the things that bugged me, in addition to the violence in the manger, was the historical anachronism. If he was going to shoot at heirloom breeds of poultry and Iron Age unarmed shepherds, he should at least use a bow instead of an automatic pistol).

I’m afraid to admit that now, my amusement has won out over my sense of horror. I don’t mind anymore (obviously, or I wouldn’t broadcast it on the web like this). After all, the scene in the original stable, which was most likely stone rather than the wooden creation depicted by European artists, was not as peaceful or serene as we’d like to imagine.

Bethlehem, as we know from the Gospel of Luke, was crowded with out-of-town visitors coming back to their ancestral homes for the census. Think about what happens in our day and age when people get into an overcrowded setting. Some see it as an excuse to party, others see an opportunity to steal from the unwary, and others just exercise their ability to complain. It’s not quiet, peaceful or serene. Bethlehem was probably a madhouse. Luke tells us that Mary laid baby Jesus in a manger, and in fact mentions nothing at all about a stable. People kept animals close to their homes, if not inside them, so that manger was most likely not far from the hubbub of the village. It was not quiet.

And while there were no ten-year-old boys shooting Nerf darts or stacking the sheep into a pyramid, there were signs of life going on all around as usual. Luke describes the angels appearing to shepherds, and they learn the wonderful news of the savior’s birth. They come to find him, and share the news. But there’s no mention of the townspeople. Unless they happened to bump into a shepherd—and deign to listen to one of the lowest members of society—they probably had no idea of the momentous occasion. Boys were shooting arrows at heirloom poultry, or at least they would have been if they thought they could get away with it.

Ten years ago, I started collecting pieces in a non-breakable Nativity set just so that my children could touch it, act out the story, make themselves part of the story. Christmas isn’t just something that happened to Mary and Joseph 2000 years ago. It happened to us, and happens again every time we acknowledge and accept the great gift of love sent to us from above.

Churches used to celebrate the Christmas story with fancy mangers covered in gold, silver and jewels. In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi set up a humble nativity scene with animals in a cave as a way to teach people, especially children, about the humanity and humility of Christ. And if one of the kids present had brought a Nerf gun…okay, he probably would not have let him take potshots at the oxen.

I’m willing to concede the St. Francis is a better role model than I am.

Until next time…


(Note: This is an encore posting of an article originally published on my website in December 2006)