Christmas is a time for family, colorful lights and presents under the tree.
But more importantly for Christians of all denominations, it’s a time for celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
Many times, that celebration includes depicting the Nativity, the Bible story which traditionally holds that the Christ child was born in an animal stable to a virgin mother. It is often depicted through artwork, live performances, or statues that can be small enough to fit on shelves or large enough to fill church vestibules.
The Spectrum spoke with leaders of various Christian denominations based in Southern Utah to learn how the Nativity adds meaning to the Christmas season.
The Nativity’s meaning
Reverend Jimi Kestin of Solomon’s Porch Foursquare Fellowship said the Nativity is “an extraordinarily important moment in Christian history.”
As such, he said setting up or visiting a Nativity is an opportunity for Christians to remind themselves that the birth of Jesus Christ changed the world.
He also feels historical accuracy is important when displaying Nativities. For example, Kestin said it’s humorous when Nativities show the Wise Men in attendance because they didn’t arrive until nearly two years after Jesus’ birth.
“We put the manger and Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus on one end of the table and the Wise Men on the other end of the table because that’s the Biblical story of the birth and early years of Jesus’ life,” he said.
But Pastor Bill Morganti of New Covenant Christian Center said people sometimes get hung up on the details of Christ’s birth.
“The fact is (Christ) was born and he came,” Morganti said. “I think setting up a Nativity is a good way to remind us God came in the flesh, he came to dwell among us and he came to redeem us of our sins.”
Reverend Dr. Ralph Clingan of the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church added that the Nativity means the arrival of Christ, his coming into the world and a new day for all people.
Clingan also said that often, presenting a message verbally isn’t enough. So when the Biblical story is added to the visual aspect of the Nativity and the aural aspect of music, “It’s announcing Christ in all the senses,” he said.
For others, the Nativity holds deep personal meaning. For example, Vicar Tom Fiske of Grace Episcopal Church said the Nativity can be a “sacramental moment insofar as a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
Carole Drake, pastoral assistant at Saint George Catholic Church, said the Nativity allows her to feel in her own heart what took place during Christ’s birth.
“It’s just a way of connecting more deeply, more intimately with that first Christmas Eve,” she said.
She also said that in 1223, St. Francis of Asisi commissioned a Nativity to be constructed around the idea that Christ was born into poverty. Christ loved the poor throughout his life, Drake said, which is why every year, the Catholic community remembers the circumstances of his birth.
“Our celebration of the Nativity and Christ’s birth on Christmas Eve speaks to his humanity, and that’s the humanity that he shared with each of us,” she said.
Is the Nativity under attack?
Not every community has embraced the Nativity. For example, the Cape Gazette recently reported that town code in Georgetown, Delaware now prohibits unattended structures or displays, including Nativity scenes (though the community is now starting a live, attended Nativity scene every evening through Christmas Eve).
Additionally, ABC7 WWSB reported that last year in Newaygo, Michigan, the Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists took issue over a depiction of the Three Wise Men being displayed on top of a public elementary.
And in 2014, NorthEscambia.com reported that a nativity scene in Jay, Florida was removed from a city hall after an attorney representing agnostics and atheists wrote a letter claiming that the Nativity was illegal.
“It is unlawful for the town to maintain, erect, or host a holiday display that consists solely of a nativity scene, thus singling out, showing preference for, and endorsing one religion,” the letter read. “Putting up a nativity scene… tells nonbelievers and non-Christians that they are outsiders in their community, that they are excluded.”
Morganti with Covenant Christian Center, however, disagrees with this thinking and said he believes not only is the Nativity under attack, but most of Christianity is, as well.
“Having (the Nativity) on public display is no different than displaying the flag from your country,” he said. “People need to understand that if all beliefs are to be respected, then why not Christianity?”
However, he added he hasn’t felt any hostility in St. George, which he described as a community with a “good faith base.”
Kestin, with Solomon’s Porch Foursquare Fellowship, said his philosophy is that the U.S. was founded on the principle of people being able to believe and worship in the way they want to, or to not worship if they choose. The cornerstone of freedom is tolerance for differences, he said, and that must include tolerance for people of faith.
“What we have in the United States is freedom of religion, not freedom from it,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with Nativity displays on public property and there’s nothing wrong with Hanukkah displays on public property.”
And Drake, with Saint George Catholic Church, said her faith’s experience in the local community has not been one of degradation or violence.
“I think the Christmas season is just a wonderful opportunity for us to come together,” she said. “We do really live that peace on Earth at Christmas time, and (that’s) something that we can carry forward into the new year.”
Written by: Kaitlyn Bancroft