In an effort to inject a smidge of reality into our family Christmas celebration, we’ve been trying to get hold of a quality nativity scene lately, and finding it pretty difficult. Australia is apathetic towards the Christian meaning of Christmas, so we’ve been looking overseas. Catholic countries in Central America do a roaring trade, and there are nativity scenes from many different cultures.

At the same time, I’ve been organising publicity for a Christmas Eve celebration, and wanted to find a nativity image for a poster. Corny, cliché, soppy are words that come to mind. Finally, I found one by Fritz Eichenberg, a refugee from Nazi Germany who became a Quaker. He also contributed many wood-gravings to the Catholic Worker.

This engraving is called “Christmas”, and I want to reflect on it briefly.

Firstly, apart from Mary and Jesus, the people’s characters are ambiguous. The figure on the right is probably Joseph but the trio could either be the shepherds (indicated by the sheep) or the three kings. Secondly, there is a combination of biblical story and an urban context. The scene is dark, Mary and Jesus sleep on a bed of hay, farm animals surround them (though not actually in the text) and an angel sings above them. However, the backdrop is urban and Joseph holds an oil lamp. This is a consistent theme of Eichenberg’s religious imagery. I immediately think of “Christ of the Breadlines”, in which Christ stands in a line of men waiting for food. Eichenberg repositions biblical stories and themes into poor urban scenes.

Thirdly, and most intriguely, there is an ‘underground’ meaning to this image, and that’s where it differs from any other nativity scene I can remember. Beneath the scene of familial bliss, albeit poor, is a disturbing scene. Literally under the floor lie 3 beasts, from left to right, 2 crocodiles or dragons and a pig. I’m not sure what the pig means (link to a Roman military cult), but I think the crocodiles represent Egypt. The Egyptians feared crocodiles so much because of their ubiquity on the Nile, that they had a god, Sobek, who was the deification of the crocodile. In some versions of Egyptian stories, he crawls out of the ‘waters of chaos’ to create the world. There are resonances with the Nativity story in a couple of ways. Egypt itself is the archetypal enemy of the people of God. The crocodile’s presence introduces the memory of freedom from oppression. It also brings to mind the holy family’s flight to Egypt  from Herod’s massacre. Sobek’s creator status beings into view an ensuing battle of myths.

I admit that I could be reading a little into Eichenberg’s intentions here, but a the very least he is inserting a minor note into a peaceful scene, reminder of the violence that is soon to envelop the destiny not only of Jesus’ infancy, but of his life.