And Joseph went up from Galilee
to Bethlehem with Mary, his espoused wife, who was great with child. And
she brought forth a son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him
in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. And the angel
of the Lord spoke to the shepherds and said, "I bring you tidings of great
joy. Unto you is born a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."
"There's a problem with the angel,"
said a Pharisee who happened to be strolling by. As he explained to Joseph,
angels are widely regarded as religious symbols, and the stable was on
public property where such symbols were not allowed to land or even hover.
"And I have to tell you, this
whole thing looks to me very much like a Nativity scene," he said sadly.
"That's a no-no, too." Joseph had a bright idea. "What if I put a couple
of reindeer over there near the ox and ass?" he said, eager to avoid sectarian
"That would definitely help,"
said the Pharisee, who knew as well as anyone that whenever a savior appeared,
judges usually liked to be on the safe side and surround it with deer or
woodland creatures of some sort. "Just to clinch it, throw in a candy cane
and a couple of elves and snowmen, too," he said. "No court can resist
Mary asked, "What does my son's
birth have to do with snowmen?"
"Snowpersons," cried a young
woman, changing the subject before it veered dangerously toward religion.
Off to the side of the crowd, a Philistine was painting the Nativity scene.
Mary complained that she and Joseph looked too tattered and worn in the
"Artistic license," he said.
"I've got to show the plight of the haggard homeless in a greedy, uncaring
society in winter," he quipped. "We're not haggard or homeless. The inn
was just full," said Mary. "Whatever," said the painter.
Two women began to argue fiercely.
One said she objected to Jesus' birth "because it privileged motherhood."
The other scoffed at virgin births, but said that if they encouraged more
attention to diversity in family forms and the rights of single mothers,
well, then, she was all for them. "I'm not a single mother," Mary started
to say, but she was cut off by a third woman who insisted that swaddling
clothes are a form of child abuse, since they restrict the natural movement
With the arrival of 10 child
advocates, all trained to spot infant abuse and manger rash, Mary and Joseph
were pushed to the edge of the crowd, where arguments were breaking out
over how many reindeer (or what mix of reindeer and seasonal sprites) had
to be installed to compensate for the infant's unfortunate religious character.
An older man bustled up, bowling
over two merchants, who had been busy debating whether an elf is the same
as a fairy and whether the elf/fairy should be shaking hands with Jesus
in the crib or merely standing to the side, jumping around like a sports
"I'd hold off on the reindeer,"
the man said, explaining that the use of asses and oxen as picturesque
backdrops for Nativity scenes carries the subliminal message of human dominance.
He passed out two leaflets, one denouncing manger births as invasions of
animal space, the other arguing that stables are "penned environments"
where animals are incarcerated against their will. He had no opinion about
elves or candy canes.
Signs declaring "Free the Bethlehem
2" began to appear, referring to the obviously exploited ass and ox. Someone
said the halo on Jesus' head was elitist. Mary was exasperated. "And what
about you, old mother?" she said sharply to an elderly woman. "Are you
here to attack the shepherds as prison guards for excluded species, maybe
to complain that singing in Latin identifies us with our Roman oppressors,
or just to say that I should have skipped patriarchal religiosity and joined
some dumb new-age goddess religion?"
"None of the above," said the
woman, "I just wanted to tell you that the Magi are here." Sure enough,
the three wise men rode up. The crowd gasped, "They're all male!" And "Not
very multicultural!" "Balthasar here is black," said one of the Magi. "Yes,
but how many of you are gay or disabled?" someone shouted. A committee
was quickly formed to find an impoverished lesbian wise-person among the
halt and lame of Bethlehem.
A calm voice said, "Be of good
cheer, Mary, you have done well and your son will change the world." At
last, a sane person, Mary thought. She turned to see a radiant and confident
female face. The woman spoke again: "There is one thing, though. Religious
holidays are important, but can't we learn to celebrate them in ways that
unite, not divide? For instance, instead of all this business about 'Gloria
in excelsis Deo,' why not just 'Season's Greetings'?"
Mary said, "You mean my son has
entered human history to deliver the message, 'Hello, it's winter'?" "That's
harsh, Mary," said the woman. "Remember, your son could make it big in
midwinter festivals, if he doesn't push the religion thing too far. Centuries
from now, in nations yet unborn, people will give each other pricey gifts
and have big office parties on his birthday. That's not chopped liver."
"Let me get back to you," Mary