Nativity stories without blonde hair and blue eyes

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Cloudscome

When I was a child we always put out the Creche a few weeks before Christmas. Part of the anticipation of the coming day was looking forward to nestling the tiny little baby Jesus in his spot in the manger. We read the stories of Elizabeth and Mary hearing news of their coming babies, we read about the trip to Bethlehem. We placed the donkey and the sheep off to the side of the stable, rehearsing the journey and imagining the desperation and exhaustion of the little family seeking shelter. More than just decorations, the Creche figures make that long ago story real.

The Christmas my son Buddy was two I decided to get him a child-friendly Creche set to help him learn the Christmas story and celebrate the birth of Jesus. I searched for something that was sturdy, beautiful, and included skin tones in shades of brown. So many of these sets have characters with ivory skin and that just doesn’t work for me. The one we had when I was growing up was resin and very European-looking. As an adult I am seeking something Middle Eastern; I want my Jesus and Mary dark and lovely.

It took a while but I finally found a set I liked. It turned out not to be so sturdy, as several of the figures have been broken or scratched. They don’t do so well being dropped or thrown. The donkey’s had its ear glued back on and there are a few chips off the wise men but all in all it is a pleasing set. The mama, papa, baby archetype is clearly central. Even Punkin, my youngest, gets the significance of that and comments on the baby first of all. The need for shelter, the interest and support of the animals, and the travelers journeying to visit the new family in a strange land are other themes I see played out. Lines and circles; seeking and finding.

For years I have been collecting nativity stories where the Holy Family is brown-skinned and dark-haired. Something about a blond, blue-eyed Christ child has always seemed “off” to me. It must be that the classical European artists rendered the Holy Family to look like themselves in order to place the story in a relevant framework. I want depictions that fit the reality of Jesus actual life as well as characters to which my brown-skinned sons can personally relate. Here are some of my favorites:

How Many Miles to Bethlehem? by Kevin Crossley-Holland, illustrated by Peter Malone. Here is the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem told poetically in the voices of each of the participants. Malone’s art glows with joy and vibrant life. The characters come in all skin tones, representing a wide variety of ethnicities. Mary is brown-skinned, with crimped hair and lovely wide eyes. The paintings are done in a Renaissance style.

One Winter’s Night by John Herman, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. This is a refreshing and astonishing retelling of the nativity story. A cow named Martha is pregnant and wandering the wintery night seeking shelter. She finds it in a shed where Mary and Joseph are huddled. The Holy Family is brown-skinned and Mary is described as a young woman with dark hair, large dark eyes and simple dress. The narrator observes “…even in the hay she was radiant.” Joseph’s kindness and confidence guides both mothers and their newborn infants.

A Child is Born by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. I absolutely love this board book and so do Buddy Boy and Punkin. Punkin is old enough to expect and look forward to nightly story hour after his bath each day. I let him pick two board books from his shelf and this one is usually his first pick. We adore the brown baby Jesus. Floyd Cooper’s paintings of the Holy Family and the angels, shepherds and wisemen are just fabulous. Joseph is a handsome black man and Mary is a stunningly beautiful black woman. I do wish her hair were natural instead of straightened.

Room for a Little One by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Jason Crockcroft. I bought this book for my boys last year and it is one of my favorite Christmas stories. The illustrations are amazing. The story is predictable but satisfying. First the dog comes to the stable looking for a place to sleep and is welcomed by the ox. Then the cat comes, at first afraid but welcomed by the dog. Then a mouse, afraid but welcomed. (Because you see there is always room for a little one…) Mary and Joseph come walking up wearily. The ox welcomes them into their haven. “Tired donkey brought Mary into the stable. Joseph made her a warm bed in the straw, to save her from the cold of the night.” In the stable the light glows. Mary and Joseph show concern and pain on their faces before (during?) the birth; joy and devotion after. I love the way Joseph has kinky hair and pouty lips.

Little Owl and the Star; A Christmas Story by Mary Murphy. The Christ child’s birth told by a little owl that follows the star with the wise men, the shepherds and the angels. Baby Jesus’ smile blesses everyone with happiness and light.

Elijah’s Angel by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Aminah Brenda Lynne Robinson. An African American barber and wood carver befriends a young Jewish boy. The boy loves to visit the barbershop and watch him carve. One day Elijah, the barber gives him a carved angel for Christmas. Michael is afraid it is a graven image and God and his parents will be angry. His parents see it as an angel of friendship, however, and encourage him to respond by giving Elijah a menorah as a gift. Elijah puts it in the window of his shop and lights another candle every night. This is a beautiful story of friendship and reaching across the differences that divide us. I love how honest Michael is in his fear and misunderstanding. I love the wisdom and grace shown in Elijah’s wood carving artwork.

Tree of Cranes by Allen Say. Set in Japan, this is the story of a young boy learning of his mother’s Christmas tree tradition while recovering from an illness. This is one of the sweetest, most beautiful, and most peaceful Christmas books I know. The illustrations are magical. It doesn’t include the story of the Christ child but it is a lovely cross-cultural connection. The family is Japanese and the mother, who was born in California, shares her memories of past Christmas celebrations in order to share the joy with her son.

If you have religious Christmas books in your home what type of illustrations do you select? Can you add anything to my list?

Cloudscome has three sons. She is a library-media specialist and blogs about books and technology at http://awrungsponge.blogspot.com. Parenting, adoption and the rest of her life she blogs about at http://sandycovetrail.wordpress.com/.

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