I bet we have six nativity scenes set up in our house this Christmas season and I know of other families who have more. These scenes always include Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus. You will also probably have shepherds with some sheep. Next is a cow, a donkey, maybe some camels, and perhaps other livestock.
Oddly, I take note of the livestock present at manger scenes. In my role as a County agent, I get the chance to assist all manner of agricultural producers, both farmers and ranchers. And perhaps dealing with livestock as a part of my job is why I take such a keen interest in what animals are there.
As a person of faith, I wonder, as I read the scriptures, about the plants, livestock, and agricultural nuances that are written in both the Old and New Testaments. What were the vineyards like? How big was a typical olive grove? How many sheep were in the flocks that shepherds tended?
And as our family was setting up the nativity scenes, just what animals were truly there? Studying both Gospel accounts from Matthew the tax collector and Luke the physician, there is no mention of any specific livestock. Distinctly, Luke states that Jesus was “laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Now let’s be clear on the matter, a manger is simply a feed trough. The word manger comes from an old French work ‘mangier’ which means a rack for fodder, or a structure or feeder used to hold food for animals – – a feed trough.
It is not a stretch to guess that feed troughs are located where the livestock are kept. But, again, no real mention is made about what was there.
Surely there was a donkey. Everyone knows Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem, right? I’ve looked and looked and cannot find it. Depending on which source you settle upon, it could have been a 70 to 90 mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Either way, that’s a fairly good distance for us to imagine walking (or riding a donkey). Of course, we would be sorely disappointed in Joseph if he hadn’t provided her with some type of ride on that journey!
And surely there were cattle. Cattle became firmly associated with modern nativity scenes after the publication of the Christmas carol “Away in a Manger” in the late 19th century and its phrase “the cattle were lowing.” Even Pope Benedict wrote to the Catholic Church that “No nativity scene will give up its ox and donkey.”
Camels are what the wise men are believed to have ridden. I’ll believe that all day long even though I cannot find scripture to back me up.
Looking through the pages of my bible, I can find no direct evidence of livestock that historic night. But is it really that important?
To the heart of the matter, I hope you’ve been inspired to open your bible and read Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. What I hope you will find is an account of real people, facing real struggles, and trying to wrap their minds around a promise that no one could fully understand at that moment.
Even today, can we wrap our minds around such a promise, such a faith? Let’s you and I keep reading what Luke the physician recorded. Next let’s read what that tax-collector Matthew wrote. Then maybe we will continue to read some more from John or Mark, and, perhaps, as we ponder more than the livestock and crops – we’ll find the real reason for this season that we know as Christmas.
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Educational programs of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, national origin, genetic information or veteran status. The Texas A&M University System, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the County Commissioners Courts of Texas Cooperating.