My perception of Christmas has changed since I had a child. I don’t mean in regard to the stress and bustle and increased costs, but my perception of the Christmas story itself. Since I became a mother, I’ve been unable to consider the historical circumstances of Jesus’ birth without letting my thoughts linger on Mary’s story.
I imagine a heavily pregnant young woman – a child, to our modern eyes – traveling on the back of a donkey for ninety miles. It’s a trip that would take days, perhaps even a week or more. I imagine the pain, the swelling, the heat (most historians agree that it was probably not actually winter), the unpredictable swings of hunger and thirst, all experienced on the back of a lumpy, itchy animal. And when the trip finally ended, and her body surely ached for a soft place to lie down and rest, there was nowhere for her to go. The only shelter available was made for livestock. I can’t help thinking that, as well as being stinky and uncomfortable, this option was especially insulting to a young woman already suffering the social stigma of being unmarried and pregnant.
And then, the worst happens. Away from family and caregivers, and perhaps surrounded by said livestock, she goes into labor. There’s no description of her experience in the famous telling by St. Luke, no actual birth story from the world’s most famous birth (somehow I doubt an account by St. Lucille would skip over this part). Although I would probably guess that teenage girls were more familiar with birth in Caesar’s day than ours, I have to believe she was still scared and feeling very alone. This is just assumption, of course, but as something of a minor expert in first-time mothers, I’ve seen a level of universality in this area. No matter the age or race or economic background, every new mother is terrified of what birth will be like, and I have yet to meet one who had any idea what she was going to do afterward. If those fears persist in our comfortable, sanitized, nurse-assisted world, how much more powerful must they have been in a young woman giving birth alone in a barn?
But that, I guess, is another assumption. Perhaps she did have help – a village midwife called out by the guilt-ridden inn-keeper, maybe. And despite all the pageant-driven ideas about that night, I’ve never read anything that actually says there were animals around, or that the stable was in use for that purpose at the time. I know birth wasn’t the fetishized ritual it is in today’s middle-class society, and I’ve heard plenty of historic anecdotes about farm laborers squatting down to birth in the middle of a field.
But still. An unwed girl in a strange town, laboring in a dark, dirty place. Far from family, criticized for her circumstances, and not even a bed to lie in when it was all over.
“O Holy Night” is my very favorite Christmas song, partly because, intentionally or not, I feel it captures both the joy and the frightening unknown of birth. If you replace the word “world” with “mother,” it could describe any woman, at any time, seeing her child for the first time.
Long lay the world
In sin and error pining,
Till He appeared
And the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope,
The weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks
A new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees,
O hear the angel voices!
O night divine,
O night when Christ was born!
Whoever you believe that baby was – a savior, a teacher, a random Jewish boy – the power of Mary’s story holds true. And for me, this season is about the hope and awe inspired by that young mother bravely bringing her son into the world.