It’s a word as Christmassy as a Christmas tree – and as crisp in sound as Christmas tree, or as the crisp winter air Christmas is typically associated with. Crisp is of course relative – as I write this in late December, a quick check tells me the temperature in Bethlehem is only a couple of degrees lower than the temperature inside my apartment; outdoors here in Canada, of course, it’s much more like what Christina Rossetti envisioned: “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone”… a very northern version of Christmastide.
Even more northern and Canadian would be the Huron Carol: “’Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled…” Ah, but that’s a particularly native nativity: “’Twas in a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found; a ragged robe of rabbit fur enwrapped his beauty ’round…” I’m put in mind of the similar presentation I first saw as a kid on the Stoney (Nakoda) reserve, which as it happens my dad has recently written about in his column: Christmas story in Stoney points to hope for humanity. Braids and buckskins, and a babe in a moss bag (they’re comfy, moss bags, by the way; I spent lots of time in one when I was that age).
But should a nativity be native? Well, um… Funny how we don’t always think about the link between nativity and native, obvious as it is at a mere glance (indeed, nativity could mean “nativeness” if it weren’t already in use to refer to the birth of Jesus). The shift of stress results in significant phonemic changes and a definite shift in reference. One may certainly speak of being a native of this place or that – but that’s not the overriding flavour native has now (and indeed, when my dad first arrived at the Stoney reserve, when they asked him where he was from, and he said he was a native of Buffalo, they told him he wasn’t a native!). Oh, “the natives are restless,” we all know that one… but the nativity is very restful. Sleep in heavenly peace, eh?
Still, why not a native nativity? If we can sing about ice and snow when those were not likely present at the actual birth of Jesus (which probably wasn’t in December anyway), if we can have songs and art that present the infant Jesus as some pale, blonde Germanic sort, if we can sing joyously that Little Lord Jesus made no crying (seriously, a man who as an adult was very good at creating stirs was somehow a perfectly quiet little baby?), why not also a native nativity?
The essence of the nativity, anyway, is the birth – of course, it has the Latin root for birth, nat, as seen in such words as prenatal – but also the humble surroundings. The very shape of the word nativity lends itself nicely to the humble birth: look at the symmetrical centre, tivit, and tell me you don’t see a manger (a hay trough) and two flanking parents. True, that tivit is surrounded by a nay, but that may be not so much naysayer as neigh-sayer. And anyway, who knows what else we may see if I tantivy mix up the letters? Well, it may come to vanity, but it may as readily give a glimpse of the tiny vita represented.
But while changing the letters may change the word, a little switching and replacement in the nativity scene does not impair its central theme, and may remind us of the common bond of humanity and the experiences and hopes we share – for instance, an African nativity scene (wzakcleveland.com/national/wzak/black-nativity-angers-italys-white-xmas-party/), or a Japanese one (mattstone.blogs.com/photos/asian_icons/nativity-ki-chang.html)… You really don’t need to be a Christian to appreciate what such depictions are getting at. (Of course, some people like to have fun with it, too; see relijournal.com/christianity/the-24-most-creative-nativity-scenes/.)