by Melanie Heuiser Hill
It was my job to read to the children. There were many other stations—crafts and coloring, games and songs—all built around the most important task of the morning: The Trying On of the Costumes for the Christmas Program, which was to be held later that afternoon.
I had my own little nook. Children and sometimes their parents came and went between finding shepherd robes and angel halos. I would put three or four Christmas books out on a table and whenever a new batch of kids came in I’d ask someone to pick a book for us to read. (Research. Always interesting to see what they pick and ask why they picked it.)
And it came to pass that I read a series of my favorites to a precocious, pragmatic seven-year-old and a whimsical three-year-old, whose favorite questions always begin with Why? After the three of us had read several books together, I put out four more and asked them to choose the next one. I knew which one they’d pick. And sure enough—The Nativity by Julie Vivas won again.
This book is brilliant. I love reading it with kids. It is so visceral, so physical, so fleshy. The text is taken from the King James Version of Luke’s Gospel—lots of thees and thous—but although they occasionally have a vocabulary question (“What’s swaddling clothes?”) kids aren’t in the least put off by the language.
And so we began with the Angel Gabriel and his fantastic wings—Vivas’s wings are truly inspired.
In the days of Herod the King, the Angel Gabriel was sent from God to the
city of Nazareth. To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name was Mary.
3-year-old: (wistfully) Why don’t we have wings anymore?
7-year-old: Humans don’t have wings. Only birds and angels and insects have wings. What’s a virgin? And what does espoused mean?
We watched Mary’s belly grow, and the seven-year-old said, “She really IS great with child.” The three-year-old remarked that Mary’s butt was pretty big, too—there’s a great view when Joseph boosts her up on the donkey. And then both volunteered details of their own birth that I’m guessing their mothers did not anticipate would be shared.
We continued, attempting to count the people in crowded Bethlehem in a gorgeous two-page wordless spread. And then before we knew it “the day came that she should be delivered.”
7-year-old: Delivered where?
Me: Delivered just means Baby Jesus would be born.
7-year-old: And delivered where?
3-year-old: To his Mom.
And she brought forth her firstborn son.
3-year-old: He has a penis.
7-year-old: Yes, he’s a boy. Because his name is Jesus.
And lo, the angels came to the shepherds. Again—the wings!
7-year-old: I’m going to be an angel in the Christmas Program. I was last year, too. I have experience.
3-year-old: (wistfully again) Why don’t we still have wings?
7-year-old: We never had wings. Human don’t have wings.
3-year-old: I used to.
And behold, the wise men came to Jerusalem….
3-year-old: I rode a camel. With my grandma and grandpa.
7-year-old: Did you follow a star?
When we were finished, we went through the book again, telling the story in our own words. The seven-year-old correctly used the words virgin, swaddling clothes, and espoused. She also threw in a few thees and thous. Most impressive. And the three-year-old stood and delivered an inspired “Fear not!” when Gabriel visited Mary, and again when the angelic choir came to the shepherds. We discussed the wings and the penis again, as well as the size of Mary’s backside. We marveled at the angels who rode the sheep and wondered what that would be like.
It was holy time. Reading to children is holy.