Did they really need a manger?

I’ve been thinking about Mary and Joseph. Yes I know those of you who know me might be surprised by this, given I am an atheist. But this is obviously a story that’s being told a lot at this time of year. Whether I think it happened or not is kind of irrelevant. It’s a significant story, and part of our cultural heritage. My daughter just played the donkey in her school nativity and understandably talks about it. It’s an important story and one that continues to be told again and again. Besides all of that, I’m a birthworker and any story surrounding babies and birth, is of interest to me.

Most paintings of the nativity represent the baby Jesus on display in the manger (These are contemporary representations and the bible account of Jesus’ birth is more vague and quite different). A crowd of admirers gather around and watch his every move. You can almost feel the oxytocin. Who doesn’t love to admire a baby? It must be the doula in me, but something about this niggles in the back of my head.

I just have one question. Did they really need a manger?

This is not meant to offend anyone or pick on the Christmas story. I’m just wondering where the manger came in and why?

Were cots commonplace among Jewish people in the middle east at this time? Maybe a historian can fill me in. I don’t know about you but if I had just free-birthed in a stable, I’d be snuggling down in the hay and keeping my baby next to me.

Everything we know about skin to skin and an undisturbed first hour of birth isn’t new. Yes the research is new (http://www.cochrane.org/CD003519/PREG_early-skin-skin-contact-mothers-and-their-healthy-newborn-infants) but the knowledge is old. Before the modern medicalised model of birth, this is what mothers instinctively did. Our babies were carried in cloth and kept close to us. We didn’t pass them around, we didn’t sleep apart. We weren’t away from them.

Lets say for arguments sake that had they been at home in Nazareth, Joseph would have built a cot for the baby, and that that was the normal way of things. After travelling hundreds of miles across the desert to a strange place and being refused entry to a cosy place to labour, would you really want to be apart from your baby? Would you be searching for somewhere to put them down so desperately?

I like to think the paintings may have got it wrong. Mary would have kept her boy close and nursed him. Kept him warm against her chest when the visitors came bearing gifts. And when it was time to rest, I like to think she snuggled down in the stable and curled her arms and legs around him, drifting off into cholecystokinin-induced slumber.

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Did they really need a manger?

  1. Well, I mean based on what we know about different cultures approach to parenting , it is far more likely that she would have co-slept and used other “attachment” parenting techniques. I would be unsurprised to discover that the use of the manger was added later on as a part of the push to get mothers back into the workforce (similar to the push to get mothers to formula feed) because if it’s good enough for the messiah, it’s good enough for little billy.


  2. All of this makes perfect sense but I never thought about it, too used to the traditional picture I presume. Still it could be that Jesus is usually in a cot because, since he supposes to “appear” in the Nativity as from the 24th, it was easier to get him separate from his mother and Joseph. God knows.


  3. The Christmas story is recorded in the book of Luke in the Bible. It was a historical document from someone who interviewed Mary herself. However, as all stories, it has been revised and embellished in the telling of it over the years. Luke mentions that Mary placed Jesus in the manger because there was no room for them in the guest room or main house. So they were staying in the place where the animals stayed. (It was common to have the family and the animals in the same structure.) The reason there was no room was because everyone in Israel was traveling because of the empire-wide census required by Augustus. Luke was emphasizing the fact that Rome was ruling over them at the time. However, the reading of the verses in Luke 2 does not require that she immediately put him in a manger. She probably did all the same things mothers at that time did. (And they probably had been in Bethlehem many days, if not weeks, before Jesus was born, so no hurried search for a place to stay, either!)


    1. Thanks Melody. Yes since writing this I have discovered that our modern day images of the nativity are quite different to what was originally written. Thank you for your comment.


  4. Luke, the writer of the account in the second chapter of his book, uses an economy of words to tell the story of Jesus’ birth. It is a simple sentence that reveals a whole scene, with a lot of significance. It reads, “And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (verse7) The simplicity and beauty of this humble birth gives us a picture of an occurrence that wasn’t common place. It was because there was no room for them in the inn (due to all being dislocated to their city of birth for the census) that the birth took place in what is assumed to be a stable, given that he was laid in a manger. Later, when the shepherds were told of Jesus’ birth and to find him, the identifying feature –or sign– was this: “You will find that Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (verse 12) This would be how they would know this was the baby they were to look for. And they were successful, as verse 16 says, “And they came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.” Later, they would spread abroad the word of this child’s birth that had been made known to them (by the angel) and many would marvel at those things told them by the shepherds. No other child was born that night and laid in a manger. So this small detail was a part of the identifying feature of a unique story of a marvelous happening.


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