Richard Littledale reflects on the art of the nativity by
exploring his own collection
On 19 November 1969, Alan Bean became the fourth human being
ever to walk on the surface of the moon. For the next 12 years he
would continue to work for NASA, rising eventually to the role of
Chief Astronaut. However, after he left he began another career -
as an artist. Ever since, he has been painting lunar scenes, often
incorporating moon dust into the paintings. These scenes are an
evocative, haunting way of saying 'I was there'.
In essence, every nativity scene - no matter how cute, bizarre,
troubling or quirky, is a way of saying 'I wish I had been there'.
My fascination with these sets over the years has been with the way
in which they reflect our projection of ourselves onto the moment
when history shifted forever.
The first set I can remember buying
was this one, hand-made in Serbia. It was so bulky coming home on
the plane that it took up most of my hand-luggage space. It is now
a well loved part of any family Christmas and takes pride of place.
The figures rotate, as if on an old town hall clock, and it can be
reset each day during Advent to look a little different.
As soon as word got out
that I collect these sets, people started to bring them back from
their travels. These brightly painted Peruvian sets are available
in every size and shape, with their gaily painted 'stable' doors.
The yellow figure to the left of Jesus intrigues me, as it appears
to be a budgerigar!
These sets, from Germany and China respectively, seem to
represent something of a 'trinketisation' of this majestic scene.
Would anybody really insert these erasers onto the end of a pencil,
I wonder? Not only that, but why do all the figures in the German
set have such clown-like red noses?
This small set from Rwanda is anything but comic. Made by the
victims of gender violence out of banana leaves, it has a drama to
it born both of the scene itself and the story of those who made
This stooped, Kenyan shepherd figure is one of a particularly
beautiful set. Like the Masai on whom he is modelled - he is tall
and seems to stride across the centuries as he carries his lamb to
greet the infant King.
These Zulu figures are covered all over in tightly woven beads -
even the baby Jesus. They are the most striking example I have of
the nativity dressed in cultural 'clothing'.
German artist Oliver Farbel's nativity carries no clothing at
all. Each character is represented simply by a wooden block bearing
their 'title'. In my experience, this set really divides those who
see it. Some love it because its complete lack of character means
that they can picture the characters for themselves. For them it is
inclusive. Those who hate it feel the exact opposite - that its
lack of character shuts them out.
These figures, which look more like bishops than magi, come from
a home-made set which I picked up at a charity shop. The clay has
been carefully pressed into hessian to give it texture, Jesus is
depicted carrying a rattle, and there is an inexplicable triangular
chicken as part of the set. Though it lacks the sophistication or
beauty of many of the sets above, this is closer to Alan Bean's art
than any we have seen. It is a deeply personal response to the
When all is said and done, my most precious nativity set is
actually my most recently acquired. It was delivered to my house on
Christmas Eve last year by the family who had made it. They had
spent the whole of the previous day fashioning it from old corks
and scraps of material they had to hand. Two shepherds are pictured
here, together with a baby Jesus made from half a cork! This
nativity set means so much to me because it is the product of love.
It was made for me by those who know my love of nativity sets and
wanted to give me a home-made gift. I shall always treasure it.
I have spent many years training as a preacher, and then as a
trainer of other preachers too. During that time, the focus in
hermeneutics (or interpretation) has shifted. We used to invest a
lot of time and energy in trying to determine all that we could
about the original meaning of the text. What did the language mean
to those who crafted it, and what did the events mean to those who
were there? Of course, in truth we can never know. This was
hermeneutics behind the text. For many, the focus has now shifted
to hermeneutics in front of the text. Since we cannot know what
went on then, we should be more finely attuned to what goes on now.
What happens in the space between the biblical text and the reader
who encounters it?
For me, these nativity sets are that debate writ large. They are
at their most powerful when they evoke our response to the events
of that first Christmas, rather than trying to depict it with any
degree of accuracy. If you were to put this magazine down now and
make a nativity set - what would it look like? More importantly,
perhaps, where would you be within it?
All images © Richard Littledale