How Nativities give meaning to Christmas — even in a pandemic
With so many canceled events this year, here’s how families in Utah can adjust their annual Christmas traditions to still be meaningful at home
For as long as anyone can remember, the Calvin and Claudia Monson family has always organized a Nativity reenactment at Christmastime.
“It was just what we did,” said the 85-year-old matriarch.
Using a box of material as simple costumes, the children used their imaginations to become shepherds, angels, wise men and sometimes animals. A star hung over a mirror in the entry way becomes the star in the east. If grandma was in a wheelchair or grandpa couldn’t get up because of arthritis, they donned a hat and became the innkeepers. The newest baby or youngest child often became the baby Jesus. Finally, family members join together in singing a chorus of Christmas carols.
The tradition carried on despite challenging times and circumstances, and in whatever city the family lived, even when the couple served in Taiwan as senior missionaries.
Looking back, what stands out most to daughter Elizabeth Thomas was the large set of leather-bound scriptures her parents used to read the second chapter of Luke. She can still recite the angel’s line she memorized as a child, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
“To have that become the centerpiece of the Nativity reenactment — it was always just straight from the scriptures — for me, that brought the scriptures to life,” Thomas said. “From a very young age I knew the scriptures were something that mattered to my parents and the stories of Jesus Christ were open to us.”
During a year when the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the cancellation of many traditional community events and limited gatherings during the holidays, families like the Monsons can still find meaning in reenacting the Nativity story and other creative home activities.
With a high volume of COVID-19 cases trending in Utah, it should come as no surprise that a long list of Christmas activities in the state have been shut down, including tree lighting events and live Nativities.
Yet there is still a sense of loss, said Tresha Kramer, the director of public relations and retail operations at This Is the Place Heritage Park, which won’t have its annual Candlelight Christmas and Christkindlmarkt but remains open on a limited basis.
“I think the public is generally used to the idea that these events are not going to happen. But they have expressed a lot of sentimental feelings about how much they’ll miss it,” said Kramer, who has heard from regular park visitors. “This is their favorite event. It’s just huge for them. ... I haven’t even sensed disappointment, but it’s been almost like a loss of a really beloved tradition.”
One congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Provo organized a live outdoor drive or walk-by Nativity earlier this month. The manger scene with Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and a live donkey was set up in front of a house at the end of the block. The three wise men and a live camel stood in an adjacent pasture and the shepherds, with live sheep and goats, were set up in the yard preceding the manger. Soft Christmas music reverently played in the background.
Another ward member dressed as a Roman centurion to collect “taxes.” As people entered the cul-de-sac, they were invited to make a donation to the local food bank. Cookies and hot chocolate were available as they exited.
People had the option to drive by or walk through. Signs were posted reminding people to wear a mask and stay in small groups.
Kelly Smith, one of the organizers, said the event was a success.
“It was simple but so sweet,” Smith said. “I stood watching people make their way through and got emotional as I listened to the music and tried to imagine what it was like on that first Christmas night.”
Elaina Wendelboe, a ward member, was touched by the experience.
“It was truly one of the most spiritual moments I’ve had for a long time,” she said.
Cooper Day, a 7-year-old, told his mother: “I felt like I was there the night Jesus was born.”
Christian churches in Indiana and Georgia also adapted live Nativities to COVID-19 regulations, Religion News Service reported.
“People still need the message of Christmas, the true meaning, the hope and the love. And so how can we provide that for them in a safe way?” Rev. Jonathan Andersen, pastor of Harvest Point United Methodist Church in Locust Grove, Georgia, said in the article. “The gift of it is everything’s different and people are open to change.”
But if you ask the Monson family, nothing beats the tradition of reenacting the Nativity at home. Claudia Monson estimates it’s been between 50 and 60 years. Along with doing one at home with her nine children, she was often asked to organize one for her Latter-day Saint ward.
“It’s been very meaningful for our family,” she said.
In addition to building intergenerational family relationships, reenacting the Christmas story helped the Monson children learn some valuable lessons at different times over the years.
“Our parents were teaching us to honor the Savior and express good will, even to people they might have been seen as adversaries or enemies,” Thomas said.
While this year may have be a Zoom family Christmas, Thomas is grateful for her parents’ efforts to create the Nativity tradition.
“I’m filled with a lot of gratitude that my parents took the time to do it in a way that worked for our family and to teach me the value, the beauty and the blessing of the Savior’s birth in my life. It was a beautiful thing in my life.”
In a year when most holiday gatherings will likely be smaller and more intimate this year, any families interested in starting faith-based Christmas traditions can take ideas from authors Emily Belle Freeman and David Butler.
Freeman and Butler worked with Ryan Jeppesen to publish “Celebrating a Christ-Centered Christmas,” a children’s book offering seven nights of meaningful traditions inspired by and centered around the Nativity setting. The simple and fun activities are appropriate for all ages and not only accommodate families with children, but also older couples or a person living alone, Freeman said.
“These are seven things you can do within the walls of your home that will bring that meaning and magic into Christmas, and might be a good way of adding something different or doing things another way but still allowing you to have those touch points of celebration leading up to Christmas,” she said. “This is a year to be really intentional about creating places where we can connect, however that might be, and allowing people to feel our love through gatherings that do connect hearts.”
Each activity involves a character from the Nativity — the shepherd, the angel, Joseph, Mary and others — along with a lesson and activity that reinforces what is being taught.
The activity associated with the shepherd is a favorite at the Freeman home. After the shepherds saw the Christ child, their first action was to share the news. Each person sits around the table with a long candle and tells how he or she has seen the Savior Jesus Christ working in their life over the past year. When one finishes, a person lights the candle of the person next to them until every candle is lit. For family members unable to attend in person, candles are mailed and they join the circle via digital technology.
“It’s our own opportunity to be like the shepherds and to share what we know about Jesus Christ from the past year,” Freeman said.
In the Nativity story, the angel’s reaction was to rejoice and celebrate, which gives the Butler family reason to make tasty hot chocolate, eat delicious food, listen to loud Christmas music and watch a holiday movie.
“It’s a party. That is how we envision when the angels came. It was a party in the sky,” he said. “Some days your heart needs to be solemn and ponder, like Mary. Some days your heart needs to share, like the shepherds. And some days, your soul just needs to rejoice, just let it all out. That’s what we do on ‘Angel night.’ Everyone loves that one.”