What Memes Mean: How to Reimagine a Nativity Scene

Each Wednesday in What Memes Mean, Kirk Bozeman questions the significance, humor, and subtexts of viral videos, memes, and other Internet fads.

Reimagining the nativity with… Spam?

This viral-ready online gallery of nativity scenes ranges from kitschy to cute-but-weird, with a number of abysmal stomach-churners scattered throughout. All of these are real, and most are in pretty bad taste.

One thing these tell us: The idea of the nativity has become so archetypical and grand that it’s something folks feel completely comfortable reimagining in silly ways. The classic depiction of the Messiah’s birth is just another thing to be cut and pasted, added to and subtracted from, repackaged and depackaged for artistic purposes. And there is a lot of this “artistic” license shown here.

But you do notice that in spite of the license taken here in this strange gallery, certain fundamentals of the nativity are always present:

One or two shepherds, each with a crook and/or staff on their shoulder. Three “wise men” in weird hats with gifts in their hands. A strangely composed and clean post-labor Mary.  Bearded, aloof Joseph. A few animals in a wooden barn with a star hanging above it, usually with a cute little angel pinned in the middle. All are staring peacefully and intently at the figure of the small child in the middle of the scene, alone in a hay-filled box.

Putting all weird Internet galleries aside for a second, this classic depiction of the nativity scene has always bothered me, mostly because it wasn’t the actual nativity scene at all. The angels that spoke to the shepherds weren’t cute, they were terrifying. The shepherds were the only ones who saw Jesus that night; the star-following magi showed up much, much later. Many scholars even think that the stable was most likely a cave of some sort, not a wooden barn. And, of course, it was probably pretty messy in there and not too peaceful. (For goodness sake, the whole birthing process had just occurred on a dirt floor.) “Silent night” with humble gazes and no crying baby seems quite unlikely to me.

I guess my point is that our attempts at reproducing the nativity are usually flawed from the start, even if we choose a more reverent route that doesn’t involve ducks, penguins, and Spam. That bothers me more artistic license. Maybe I’m being too picky, but I kind of like my cosmic, God-incarnating moments of history to be accurate.

But the existence of this archetype — frustratingly incorrect though it may be — is itself evidence of the weight of the story of Jesus. The entrance of Christ into the world altered the course of history, changing lives and shaping countless minds and nations. This story of a baby in a manger made its way to the ends of the earth; no wonder it’s become so familiar we hardly question our assumptions about it. The nativity scene is a cultural given now because it’s something that followers of Jesus have been carrying excitedly and imperfectly to the world for 2,000 years: God incarnate, born to save mankind. When we communicate that, we at least get the important part right.

So, please recall the wonder of the incarnation and God’s grace for our often imperfect perceptions of it as you set up your Veggie Tales or Precious Moments figurines this year. And maybe leave the wise men in the box this time — I would really appreciate it.

About Kirk Bozeman

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