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The Christmas manger is for motherhood – but watery vessels speak to all womanhood, PC finds

December 20, 2014

Jesus in the manger

Images of the Christian nativity can be alienating for women who are involuntary non-mothers like me. It’s not just the representations of the doting Mary with the Christ child on her knee, or leaning over the baby in his manger in a radiant pool of light: somehow it’s that manger artefact itself, framing the act of successful reproduction, encapsulating the infant in a hold of safety, suggesting completion of something that we can’t achieve: maternal fulfilment, beside divine.

Centuries of art have sentimentalised and idealised the object of the manger: the original concept of an impoverished, if not humiliating, improvised cradle – smelly and rough and probably cold – has often been replaced in paintings and sculptures and stained windows and Christmas cards with a wooden crib more like a modern-day aspirational handcrafted cot, filled with straw that looks positively fluffy and inviting.

This was the reality:

Stone manger as Jesus bed

That this hard stone trough is a chilling foreshadow of Christ’s tomb or coffin (just as the magis’ gift of myrrh, traditionally used for dressing and mummifying a dead body, is an ironic presentiment of his crucifixion) is a symbolic nuance generally lost to contemporary consciousness.

Turning from the manger, there are many stories, biblical, mythical and traditional, of babies placed in other kinds of container. The infant Moses was famously set adrift in a basket among the bullrushes of the Nile. Historians have noticed that this tale bears striking similarities to an old Babylonian myth about a great King called Sargon who was discovered as a baby in a basket in a river. Maybe, since the Jews were captured by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and held in exile in Babylon (modern Iraq), they used this ancient detail to spice up their Moses heritage.

Moses floating in the water

In ‘The King’s True Children’ from The Beautiful Blue Jay and Other Tales of India edited by John W. Spellman (1967), jealous older wives send the youngest queen’s two babies down the river, where they are rescued and raised by a fisherman and his wife. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Antigonus abandons the royal baby Perdita (meaning ‘lost’), along with some precious tokens, on the Bohemian coast.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm tell another story, ‘Changelings in the Water’. A peasant fathers a killcrop (changeling) that sucks its mother and five wet nurses dry. The peasant is advised to take the child on a pilgrimage in praise of the Virgin Mary and have him weighed at his destination. He puts the boy in a pack basket and sets out, carrying it on his back.

He’s about to cross over a stream on a bridge when he hears a shout from the water: ‘Killcrop! Killcrop!’
The child in the basket has never spoken before, but suddenly answers: ‘Ho! Ho!’
The devil in the water asks: ‘Where are you going?’
The killcrop says, ‘I am going to Heckelstadt to our Dear Lady, and have myself weighed, that I might thrive.’

When the peasant hears that the changeling can talk, he becomes angry and throws him, together with the basket, into the water. The changeling and the devil cry out ‘Ho! Ho! Ha!’ and frolick, then disappear.

‘Hans Dumb’ is another German tale. A king’s daughter has a baby whose father is unknown. During a church ritual to nominate a suitable, fine father, a small, crooked, simple hunchbacked lad called Hans Dumb manages to claim paternity. The king is so horrified that he has his daughter, the child and Hans Dumb placed in a cask and launched into the sea.

Children of Qu Blondine & Princess Brunette picked up by a Corsair from  the tale Princess Belle-Etoile illus W Crane

The picture above, by Walter Crane, illustrates the story ‘Princess Belle-Etoile’, and shows the children of Queen Blondine and Princess Brunette, cast adrift in a small boat, being picked up by a Corsair.

So why do these images of children in boats and baskets and casks, cast adrift, capture me in a way that infant-in-manger doesn’t? Well, first they are in some sense ‘lost’, as all children are lost to me. And yet they are, simultaneously, safe. They are contained, securely afloat. The image of the infant wrapped and enclosed, surrounded by water, mimics the embryo in the womb, floating protected in the amniotic fluid: an image of hope and expectation, certainly for mothers, untainted by the whiff of impending doom that surrounds the manger and the prophecy of crucifixion and death implicit in some of the magis’ gifts.

Also, if both mothers and non-mothers were honest, many of them would admit to feelings of fear, inadequacy and uncertainty about the thought, the responsibility, of having children (I’ve posted elsewhere about my personal ambivalence: The images of setting children adrift, images of precariousness and danger and threat, perhaps answer to such feelings. And yet, and yet: ultimately, most of the children in these tales are rescued by someone, either returning – amid jubilation and reconciliation – to their parents or being taken on to some new, much happier life. For all of us who have not just lost the chance of children, but lost children (through the different, ultimately dominant views of our partners about not having children; through miscarriage, termination, cot death or other kinds of bereavement) can maybe take comfort from these happy resolutions – kind of shadow lives of the children that we may never have had (I’ve posted on ‘Shadow lives’ too:

Forget the Christmas manger: whether we are mothers or not, perhaps all female kind can feel a sense of union in womanhood, a feeling sisterhood, around such images and tales.

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