What are you doing in my nativity scene?

Christmas is coming! Time for visiting family, wrapping presents, eating breads made out of various vegetable and fruit matter, and becoming less enraged at hearing Winter songs on the radio.

I've been a fan of Christmas for a long time. Something that helps me get in the mood (which Winter songs do not!...especially when they start playing them right after Hallowe'en) is reading books and watching movies about the Nativity. It's something I keep doing because I'm looking for those that will make me happy. The results have been mixed. There are good things and bad things - or should I say positive things and negative things - about each book and movie I've come across. I sometimes think I should institute an awards system. Like, the award for negative things could be called the Herod, and the award for positive things could be called the Frankincense, or something like that.

Anyway, here are my results so far. A lot of what I have to say focuses on portrayals of Mary, because she's one of my favorite people ever (in a non-mariolatrous way).

Christmas Books

Two from Galilee, by Marjorie Holmes (1972). My first grown-up Christmas book.

  • Mary is blonde.
  • It's been so long since I read this book that I don't remember much else about it. But I liked it well enough once upon a time to read it twice.

How Far to Bethlehem?, by Norah Lofts (1965).

  • Mary is very kind to animals in this book.
  • Mary is so very kind to animals, she could be a PETA poster child.
  • Too much time is spent on the wise men and their private torments as they converge on Bethlehem. I was privately tormented having to read about them. I don't think I finished the book.
Mary & Joseph, by Robert Marcus (2006). I listened to the audio book while driving across the desert one time.

  • Marcum did a lot of research on the customs and traditions of Jewish culture and the observance of Mosaic law during the time of the birth of the Savior, and it shows in this book.
  • According to Marcum's research, women - even pregnant ones - wouldn't have ridden donkeys back then; they would've walked. So much for that popular cultural image!
  • Contrary to what the title leads one to expect, too much time is spent on "filler" characters, like Joseph's work partner and his family, and not enough on Mary and Joseph.
  • Marcum skips over the Nativity!! I actually want to put about 50 exclamation points after that sentence. It's incomprehensible to me how you can say you're telling the story of Mary and Joseph, and then not focus on The Major Event of that story. He also skips over the annunciation. The basic main stuff about the Nativity is referred to only after the fact. Boo. This probably would have been my favoritest Christmas book ever if Marcum had not shirked his responsibility to his readers in that respect.

From what I understand, Bodie and Brock Thoene have written a series of books called The AD Chronicles, and three of them (Fourth Dawn, Fifth Seal, and Sixth Covenant) have to do with events surrounding the birth of Jesus. I'll have to look for these books and see how they measure up. One thing I've read about them that I find quizzical is that they call Jesus Yeshua, and they call Joseph Yosef, but they call Mary Mary. Why not Miriam? Eh? Why not?

Of course, for me Christmas isn't Christmas without Christmas movies. When I was a child I viewed as a child, with classics like A Charlie Brown Christmas, and several versions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol (including the one with Mr Magoo, which is probably my favorite). But as I grew older, I started looking for movies that told the real Christmas story. These are fewer in number and harder to come by, especially when you're looking for a combination of 1) authentic portrayal of the times; 2) accuracy (including doctrinal accuracy) of the story; 3) emotional resonance; and 4) good acting.

Christmas Movies

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Not really a Christmas movie, but it starts out with a few minutes devoted to the Nativity.

  • Dorothy McGuire as Mary. Don't get me wrong, I like Dorothy McGuire just fine. She was great as Helen in The Spiral Staircase. But, at the age of 49, she was about three times too old to be playing Mary.
  • Nothing really in the Christmas section of the movie, but I liked Janet Margolin as Mary, Martha's sister.

Jesus of Nazareth
(tv, 1977). Actually, not really a Christmas movie, either. But I watch the first two hours every Christmastime, and skip the rest.

Baby Jesus, out from under the carpet

  • Everything past the childhood of Jesus.
  • Everyone except Mary looks like they're dressed in industrial-strength draperies and carpet remnants.
  • We get to hear Gabriel's voice in Joseph's dream instructing him to take Mary as his wife because she really is telling the truth about where Jesus came from, but when Mary has her annunciation, there is no voice, no angel. Just a wind blowing open the shutter. Mary basically talks to herself there.
  • Mary otherwise has little to say throughout the film.
  • Poor little Jesus is born under some industrial-strength draperies and carpet remnants. Get him out of there, Joseph!
  • One of the wise men - the Zoroastrian one - sounds like he's been at the hashish.
  • The wise men, not Gabriel, warn Joseph to take Mary and Jesus out of Bethlehem.
  • Mary and Joseph don't meet Anna at the temple.
  • Olivia Hussey makes a very beautiful Mary.
  • Mary has a cool braid in her hair.
  • Mary gets to say part of the Magnificat.
  • Mary and Joseph meet Simeon at the temple.
  • The wise men show up after Jesus has been presented at the temple, and not in tandem with the shepherds. They even hang out at the little house Mary and Joseph are living in, not at the stable.
  • It has Peter Ustinov as Herod shouting in a strained voice "Kill! Kill! Kill!"
  • Mary suffers labor pains while traveling on the donkey. This is positive in that it seems like an accurate portrayal, but negative in that, ever since I had children, it makes me uncomfortable.

The Nativity
(tv, 1978). When I first saw this back in the day, I liked it a lot. But either I was immature or the film has not aged well.

  • The costumes look like they're made from Sears bed sheets.
  • No angels appear to either Mary or Joseph, no voices, just bright lights.
  • When Mary tells her family about her circumstances, the ensuing dialogue sounds like they have decided to play How Many Times Can You Use the Word "Pregnant" in a Sentence in the Next Sixty Seconds.
  • The three wise men's story is weird. They're not so much following a star as they are following up rumors of charismatic Jewish political leaders. And, for some reason, they show up at Joseph and Mary's betrothal or wedding or birthday party or whatever, several months before they stop by at the Nativity.
  • Short sleeves on Mary. It just looks wrong.
  • The birth was as unbirthlike as possible while still producing a child. Okay, about that: Madeleine Stowe (who played Mary) said in an interview that, when they were filming the part in the stable, the director told her to just lie down in the straw. She asked him if he wanted her to show any pain or discomfort, and he said no, that she should just lie down. So I know who to blame. But...did you know that there are people who think Mary felt no pain when she gave birth? While looking up information about these movies, I came across a comment where someone was criticizing a documentary (that I haven't seen) about Mary by complaining about how annoying it was to be shown yet another woman in labor. This individual then went on to say that "it has been said in the Bible that Mary did not have labor pains during the birth of Jesus." It has been said? At one time or another? Okay, I'm looking in my Bible right now and it's more like it doesn't say anything about whether Mary had labor pains or not. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But...did you know there's an old legend that says Mary didn't actually give birth to Jesus at all? That she just lay down in the straw a la Madeleine Stowe, as comfy as you please, and then an angel descended and placed the infant Jesus in her lap?
  • Except for the "pregnant" scene, good acting overall.
  • Good acting by Madeleine Stowe. Her reaction to seeing Joseph after the sparkling water that passes for the annunciation in this film, her explanation to him of what has happened, and the expression on her face when he rejects her are all brilliant and stick in my memory.
  • Mary gets to say the Magnificat.

Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith
(tv, 1979)

  • Joseph joins the Zealots and keeps shaving off his beard.
  • Joseph and Mary argue politics.
  • Almost none of the story line is based on the biblical account.
  • Mary has a cool braid in her hair.
  • There's a moment, just after Jesus is born and the shepherds have come, when Mary is just a tiny bit reluctant to show Jesus to them, like she just wants to keep him as her own little baby boy for a bit longer. I don't know if she was really that way, but since seeing this film I've sometimes wondered. It reminds me of that line from "Mary's Lullaby": "for you are a king, but tonight you are mine."

Mary, Mother of Jesus (tv, 1999). Another not just a Christmas movie that I now watch only the first part of. Since this is about Mary more than anyone else (meaning there's a lot of invention in it), the Christmas story does get a pretty thorough going-over. In a sense.

  • Very modernized characterizations. Mary may indeed have been feisty and outspoken, but somehow this depiction of her doesn't seem realistic for the time period.
  • Jesus' teachings originated in Mary's bedtime stories to him? Right.
  • Mary isn't relegated to a background role.
  • Joseph is a pretty cool guy, although somewhat older than I believe he was.
  • Joseph and Mary don't argue politics.
  • That's about it.

The Nativity Story (2006). My new favorite Christmas movie.

Teh best

  • Mary seems a little underwhelmed by Gabriel's announcement.
  • The wise men show up at the stable the same night as the shepherds. In fact, the wise men sort of elbow the shepherds out of the way so they can get closer.
  • Elizabeth really scares me when she's giving birth to John.
  • Good acting overall.
  • They get Zacharias right.
  • Joseph and Mary's evolving relationship is very well done.
  • Their trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem is also very well done.
  • Jesus is actually born, labor pains and all.
  • The little baby that plays Jesus has his little eyes open in the dark, looking all around, while Mary and Joseph are asleep on either side of him.
  • Mary gets to say the Magnificat, even if it's a voiceover at the end instead of to Elizabeth.
So, one of these years I hope I'll find the perfect Nativity book (outside of scripture, I mean), and possibly even the perfect Nativity movie. It's a fun search.