Itís not difficult to imagine the situation that Joseph and Mary encountered when they reached Bethlehem on important tax business. It would have been a long trip for pregnant Mary and Joseph, who had walked all day. The desk clerk was sorry but told them "there is no space in the inn!"
To create a Nativity sculpture thatís compatible with the New Testament account of the birth of Christ, I rely on my farm background to help interpret the story. Mary, a young girl about 14 years old, was convinced by Godís messenger that she would give birth to Godís only son. She wouldnít have planned to ride all day, bumping along on a donkey to deliver her baby in a crude animal shelter with dust and curious animals in the same shed. Sheíd have preferred to rock her infant in a lovely cradle made by her husband, Joseph, but she "made do" with swaddling cloths and the babyís first bed - probably a converted feeding box for sheep!
Imagine a smelly barn with chickens on roosts, ducks slopping around in the animalsí drinking water, noisy cattle and Maryís donkey resting. Cobwebs and dusty storage are standard for an old shed or barn. It would have been an open shelter, tall enough for Joseph to stand beside Mary, who would have cuddled the baby Jesus next to her warm, full breasts. Joseph would have stood ready to take his turn holding the baby. Joseph would have wanted Mary to sleep for a while, but the young mother wouldnít have realized how tired she was. Mary would have protected her baby close to her body, cuddled in a spiral, "swaddling" cloth wrap.
Itís satisfying to use clay from Boone County to re-create the Christmas story and have customers pay me for the privilege of decorating their homes year after year with a reminder of what Dec. 25 really is, other than just a holiday with gifts and great food.
Itís rewarding to know my crude handiwork is in homes where little children will hear the Christian story year after year.
Creating these folk art sculptures of the most important Christian holiday ties me to a great army of people who love Christmas and worship Christ, as I do.
Not completely satisfied with the barns or shelters I make, I asked my friend, Amal Al Roomi of Kuwait, "What material would have been used to build a stable or barn?" Amalís answer was a wide grin and two words: "Only sand!"
Some of my clay barns looked like wooden plank structures, some resembled logs and some were shaped to look like natural stones. Amal assured me by her repeated smile that a barn couldnít have been made of wood or rocks out there in the desert.
My 1886 encyclopedia says only this: "The monks show visitors a cave in which Jesus is said to have been born."
When I made a Nativity scene with a cave opening as a backdrop, I thought of Amal and our many differences - and our many similarities, though we speak different languages and live half a world apart!
The Christian holiday is celebrated in many different ways, but to me thereís a special appeal about a young pregnant girl riding a donkey for miles and then delivering her baby - the son of God - in a dirty, old animal shelter without lights, running water, a doctor or even an older woman to hold Maryís hand!