A candid perspective on the nativity
|Created: December 2002|
|Modified: December 10, 2021|
During worship of an epiphany, most neglect how shitty it was for a God to be born in a stable 2,000 years ago. For example, they had no soap either. And that is just the beginning of how shitty it was.
For example, one thing we tend to forget is that there was no soap in Bethlehem, at the time when Jesus Christ was born. In the modern era of post-technological convenience, we just tend to assume that one could go to the corner store and buy a bar of soap. But soap hadn’t been invented yet, and back then, you’d be very lucky even to find spring water in the shops. Maybe you think I exaggerate this cleft in our comprehension, but for myself, I do remember singing in the church choir at Christmas time:
While shepherds washed their socks at night,
All gathered round the tub,
A bar of Angel soap came down
And they all began to scrub.
I find the modern version of the Crèche too sanitized. Of course, we’re happy that young children lovingly assemble dolls of people, animals, and angels for public display all through the months of the long Christmas season. That doesn’t totally ignores the filth in which Jesus was born.
So first, here’s the standard account. When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, it was during the Roman census. Everyone had to return to their hometown for counting and tax calculation. So all the pubs were full, and there were no rooms available anywhere. Joseph and Mary set up for their semi-vacation in a stable, which in those days not only contained horse shit, but also, the excrement of chickens, goats, sheep, cows, and oxen seeking shelter in the winter. So I really am not joking when I say Jesus’ life was pretty shitty from the start, and only got worse.
But some good things did happen.
In those days, Eastern shamans used to travel everywhere to conduct weddings and other celebration when people asked. Lots of people did ask for them to officiate ceremonies, so it didn’t really matter where they went. They observed a bright star (which we now know was a supernova) that wasn’t on their astrological charts, and decided to ride towards it. Eventually, they arrived at the stable where Jesus had just been born. Let’s imagine the conversation:
“You just had a baby? What are you doing in a stable?”
“The pubs were full.”
“Holy Crap! You mean, no one even let you inside? That’s crazy. You know it’s our job as wise men to know more about this type of thing. But even where we are from, everyone knows the infant mortality rate is somewhere between 50% and 75%! So they made you have a baby in horseshit? These people here are a bunch of savages!”
“Well around here, we don’t know the exact odds of a baby dying, but people all know it’s always a gamble.”
“Then why didn’t they let you inside? This is insane. Here, take some spare stuff from us to help you along. And congratulations!”
The wise men even gave the family gold and frankincense. We know Joseph didn’t need the money immediately, as he had money to pay for a place where his wife could have a baby, but no one let him in. The frankincense was for covering up bad smells, as people didn’t have soap. Then one can imagine the wise men from the East adding sarcastically, “Considering how people behave here, this could be the last time anyone is compassionate to you ever!” But then adding, “We so hope your baby doesn't die, but just in case you need it, here, have some myrrh too. And we wish you long life and happiness, whenever you need to use it.”
Myrrh is a slow-growing desert tree, found in places like Yemen and Southern Saudi Arabia, which has a strong, beautiful aroma. Because of its distance and difficulty in growing, the tradition was that myrrh was kept to put with the dead in tombs. The myrrh covered up the smell of rotting corpses very well, so people could get back into the tomb later without vomiting at the stench.
So Joseph was probably most happy about the frankincense at the time, with nothing but the straw provided by the innkeeper to clean the baby and dispose of the baby’s afterbirth. What first strikes me about this whole occasion is how little people think how disgusting the whole experience had to have been up to then. This is partly because we kind of assume they had soap, perhaps. But there was no soap. When people wanted to clean their skin, they rubbed and scraped sharp-edged hot stones on themselves. That isn’t very effective at removing horseshit and other excrements.
What most strikes me is that no one in the town let the family indoors, even during childbirth. We still romantically celebrate the birth of The Savior with him lying in a cute little horse trough, with merry candles twinkling amongst lacquered bunches of holly and shiny metal stars. The New Testament tells us over and over again that we should love Jesus, but for some reason, we also ignore how rarely people were kind to him in his own life. Personally I like the baptism best. It’s the only time anyone said to Jesus “thank you just for being you.” Most the time, people are begging him to do this, do that, cure this, cure that. Most the time in the gospels, everyone is just asking for things for themselves. There’s only the wise men, the baptism, and a few other occasions like the prostitute by the well asking him in, where people were clearly wanting him to be happy, rather than thinking of themselves.
Even Jesus’ particular friendships with harlots, over the last 2,000 years, have often been a source of scorn for those wishing to condemn Christ’s actions. So much of what it was actually like has been censored out. Most old brothels were torn down during the Dark Ages, but we now know more about them from newer archaeological findings. Around the top of the front, the Romans put large painted statuettes of erect penises, like gargoyles, over the upper-story bedroom windows. Unfortunately the ones protruding from walls have all been stolen since I was a child, but there are some murals left. Potential clients could ascertain the qualities of the girls within by the size, shape, coloring, and decorations around the penis statuettes. The brothels were very popular in Jesus’ life, and an important source of revenue from tourists, soldiers, merchants, and others passing through. So the brothels were often prominently close to the town square. The bordello-style front lounge wasn’t hidden, but simply a part of life. Of course, wives would be telling their husbands not to talk to the pretty girls, and prostitutes came to have very low social esteem in the Dark Ages and after. So we tend to judge Jesus by how we think of brothels now.
Behind the brothels, there were hidden low suites of rooms, typically one story high and not considered so important, where the madams, children, and pregnant women lived all the time. As they had no birth control at all, there were a lot of children there, and it was a pretty happy place, in which men were seldom invited. In the back, women could dress casually, but to increase the allure and stimulate business, women seldom let men see them that way, even covering their faces when going to the town well to collect water. So it was a kind of special thing that Jesus was friends with them.
If you wanted to know more about the girls, in those days you went to the communal toilets. They were paid toilets, but they weren’t very expensive. They didn’t have stalls for each toilet bowl like now. Instead, there was a ring of oval holes, cut into wooden or stone benches around the walls, with 6-12 seats on each side of the room. In larger towns, there were multiple rooms you could choose between. So you’d sit on the seats, and while you were having a crap, have a fun chat with your neighbors. It was the town center for gossip. If you wanted to know anything, the communal toilets were the best place to go. Stories about incidents with the town prostitutes were of course very popular, but they also gossiped about political, social, and religious events. They might have been a major source of information about Jesus' life that was first handed down orally, and eventually written in the gospels sometime over the 70 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
In the better towns, the excrement from under the benches in the communal toilets was dug out and mixed to make fertilizer. But in most towns such as Bethlehem, it just ended up in the river. That made the rivers extremely smelly, and the water often tasted awful. So what people did was brew beer from the river water and drink beer instead of water. It transpires that the alcohol in the beer killed the bacteria from all the shit, so it was also healthier. And there was a side benefit. Almost everyone was slightly tipsy most of the time. So if you’re looking for more good things to think about Jesus’ life, that could be one of them.
Because the rivers were full of shit, most people seldom took baths, before the Romans built public baths everywhere (one of the things they did, partly to improve the quality of life in exchange for the exorbitant taxes; and partly because Romans found the majority of the people in their provinces revoltingly odiferous). Bethlehem was too small and remote to have the Roman public baths, so to wash the newborn Jesus with hot water, Joseph would have burned something to boil up a kettle.
Freshwater from the wells was mostly only used as drinking water, except for people like the prostitutes that the town needed to keep cleaner. Joseph probably bought some take-out beer from a town pub for drinking. It would have been frowned upon for him to take freshwater into a stable.
One can imagine the Jewish town boor shouting at him, "What the fuck are you doing taking well water into the stables? You should be getting it from the river!"
And Joseph shouting back, "My wife is in there, and she just had a baby!"
At least we can hope he did that, because burning camel dung already smells really disgusting.
And the Wise Men got on their camels and high-tailed it out of there.
But maybe, from what we know now, Jesus later chose to learn more of the wisdom they followed, as I will be discussing later.
But what of the holy crap, you may ask? Well, the camel dung doesn't normally get mentioned. It burns much better than dried oxen dung, which Joseph would have used other times, because camels’ intestines suck all the water they can out of their food, for storage in their humps.
The exact smell of the camel dung depends on what the camels have been eating, but generally, a camel’s repast was not that digestible. And as far as the three Wise Men were concerned, camel dung was just as precious as money, because they didn't need to carry something else to burn when they were traveling in remote places; but if they gave the family myrrh, we can be certain they gave camel dung too. I will have something more to say about all the shit later.....something even worse....just as a warning.....but there’s more about all that crap I have to say first.
They didn’t even let Mary inside to have a baby. Holy crap. Holy, holy crap!