Gothic Christmas: The Black Manger

Painted Angel.  (Featuring Fenix Jenkins)

Painted Angel. (Featuring Fenix Jenkins)

Regardless of your beliefs about belief or the history of how Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th, when we think about this holiday, it’s helpful to realize that this is a time that’s especially entwined with the Gothic experience. For this holiday is one that’s about rejection by a society and a family that didn’t understand—and an unexpected kindness from an unlikely source.

It’s the story of a young girl who was found pregnant before she was married in a culture where you could be stoned (not like the Grateful Dead, but, rather, until you were dead) for this situation. Even though she wasn’t killed, she would’ve been rejected and shunned by most everyone who knew her. And the fact that she claimed that she’d been impregnated by something supernatural probably had a lot of her relatives seriously thinking about shipping her off to someplace with padded walls.

Then we add in Joseph, the fiance. It’s most likely that he would have been much older than Mary and he would have had his own carpenter’s business. (We know the latter because, according to Josephus—one of the most famous historians of the time—Jesus was raised a carpenter.) Carpenters not only worked with wood in those days, but they also carved stonework, as well. These men were craftsmen whose entire fortunes were staked on their reputations. They were careful to permit no spot to sully their good name, lest they find themselves destitute.

Once it came out that Mary was pregnant, he had every reason in the world to reject her, as well, and nullify the engagement. Yet, despite that fact, he chose to risk his reputation and his career on this girl from Nazareth. I don’t care how hot Mary might’ve been, you don’t shoulder that sort of burden unless you’re a pretty remarkable person.

Barely have the two unfortunates gotten together, however, but they find out that the foreign occupation force that has taken over their country from Rome is demanding that everyone show up to their ancestral home town. Lucky for them, Joseph’s family was from a town called Bethlehem, 80 miles away.

As a trade caravan wouldn’t want the stigma associated with transporting Mary and Joseph (since stigma’s bad for trade), their most likely form of transportation would’ve been a mule. That’s if they were able to afford it. If not, the heavily pregnant Mary would’ve gotten to trudge on foot for AT LEAST 80 miles. (While technically, the distance was 80 miles as the crow flies, there was the country of Samaria, which would’ve been filled with the sort of unsavory desperadoes you normally find in a cantina on Mos Eisley, in between—so they probably would’ve skirted it by going into modern day Jordan.) In the end, they probably spent at least a week on the road.

And, when they got to Bethlehem, they found that all the people who’d had enough social standing and/or wealth to hop a caravan and get their ahead of them had taken up all the available rooms at the inns and boarding houses. This doesn’t mean there were actually no rooms; rather, it means that all the rooms that people of Mary and Joseph’s “social standing” could’ve obtained were already rented out. It’s quite possible that half the town was open for people of “better social standing” who didn’t have “questionable pregnancies” associated with them.

It had to be the worst thing in the world for this young couple to be stranded so far from home and have no idea where they would sleep, much less how they would survive until they could finally get in to have their census information taken. Undoubtedly they were dead last on the list for taking census info, as well.

In my own life, I remember a somewhat similar situation when I and my wife were first married. We were dirt poor and all of our cars were over 10 years old when we first acquired them. A family wedding in Arkansas had come up and, since we lived in Kentucky I had pre-emptively had some serious engine repair done on my ’93 Corolla ahead of time. At first the trip was going quite well but then, barely an hour outside of Nashville, the engine blew up! Because the mechanic’s work was still under a warranty, we had to get the car towed first to a mechanic there and then wait while the two mechanics hemmed-and-hawed over it via the phone. Because it was the weekend, we had to rely on the kindness of strangers just to find a motel that had some room while we waited for our car to finally be able to be checked out some two days later. When we finally did, officially check out of our hotel and the kind motel owner gave us a ride down to the mechanics, we found that the car couldn’t be repaired and that our mechanic in Kentucky wouldn’t comp the mechanic there to fix our car. They would get it towed back to them in a week or two. That left us with the only option to rent a car, but the one rental car place we had thought we could rent from had no cars left for us. So there we were, packed bags on our backs, a broken car, and no place to go. My wife was at her wit’s end—which is saying a lot, because she’s a very strong woman—and I remember her weeping brokenly as we walked down the street from the rental place toward the mechanics, where we hoped to catch a few hours of sleep in our out-of-commission car and then figure something else out. I can only imagine that it must have been so much worse for Joseph with his bride-to-be that he’d known less time than I known my wife and with her pregnant, to boot. In the case of our stranding in Tennessee, even though my wife had spent two days calling everyone we’d ever known or helped, only to find that everyone was away, not answering phone calls, or too busy, I decided to make one last round of phone calls. Eventually, I was able to find two friends of ours who were still in college who were willing to make the four hour trip out to pick us up and take us home. I remember the gratitude I felt as they picked us up that night and took us from the chaos we’d been stranded in back to our home.

While the story of Mary and Joseph is about two outcasts being rejected and then having no place that would accept them, it too is about unwarranted kindness. The innkeeper who let them stay with his animals is often portrayed in plays and musicals as stingy and begrudging, but the reality is that he was likely one of the most compassionate men in that town. He was probably the person who had let everyone stay with him and then, when he had no place left to give, he made a place for Mary and Joseph because his heart went out to them and because he was angry at the callousness of those around him. Undoubtedly, any proper innkeeper would never have risked it being know that he let stowaways stay in his barn (which, in point of fact, was probably a nearby cave), but this man did.

At each step of the way, we see that, the story behind Christmas really is about one of unexpected kindness to outcasts.

Long before I thought of myself as a Goth, I remember a concept I had read about in which one gets a nativity scene that has a removable Christ child. Then they cut little pieces of golden yarn into 1” sections and lay them beside the manger like a pile of straw. Throughout the Yuletide season, whenever a secret kindness is done for someone else, a piece of yarn is placed in the manger by the doer. The goal is that, by the Yule celebration, there would be a soft place to lay the baby.

If being Goth is about the search for truth and the belief that love is a quality to be highly esteemed, then it seems a holiday that can be about unnamed kindness done out of sight—in the dark, so to speak—should be one that is of special meaning to us. Perhaps this Christmas season you might choose to get yourself a nativity, paint the figurines in their Gothic best, and then lay a piece of black yarn into the manger whenever you do a special kindness for the outside world.

It may be tipping that frazzled waitress at Denny’s 50% on your next check…or it might be making a batch of cookies for the single mother who lives down the hall and then “ding-dong-ditching” them on her doorstep…or it may be going down to the local children’s hospital and playing games with one of the kids, so their parents can get out and relax for a bit. Whatever you do this holiday season, may you remember those two outcasts that got smuggled into a cave so many centuries ago and choose to be a black angel of mercy to those around you! 

Author: DarkestGoth Industry News

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