At Christmastime 14 years ago, I was exceedingly pregnant — Santa-sized, you might say. It was a sublime experience, being so pregnant in the month when the world focuses on a birth. Never again, I thought, would I feel such kinship with the little family hobbling to Bethlehem.
But then, this year, we got a donkey. Jo-Jo is her name.
We didn’t want a donkey; we wanted only a horse. But knowledgeable people told us — gullible people — that horses are social creatures and they need at least one friend. Left alone, one horse might maraud and destroy your home. A donkey could be had for a mere $500; this seemed a fair price to prevent wholesale destruction of the neighborhood, so spindly little Jo-Jo got a new home.
We knew a little bit about horses; we knew nothing about donkeys. The word itself is funny; it rhymes only with “honkey,” and that’s a pretty good description of the noise that donkeys make. Donkeys don’t bray as much as they honk. Remember Bill Clinton’s first speech to the Democratic convention, the one in which everyone cheered when he finally said, “In closing”? A donkey’s bray goes on forever like that and grates you in the same way as a convention speaker who refuses to quit.
A donkey’s bray, it turns out, is not a whimsical “hee haw.” That’s the sanitized version, probably invented by the National Donkey & Mule Association. In truth, it’s “hehhhhhhhhh hee haw hee haw heehaw heehaw, heehaw” in one drawn-out, blood-curdling bellow, without the creature ever taking a breath. It’s like a donkey seizure; his whole body shakes, and you suspect that someone a mile away is calling the police to report an axe murder. It is not an endearing sound; this is not an animal you’d want hovering about as you deliver.
But the donkey permeates the Christian story, from the gentle (and bewilderingly mute) beast that ferried Mary to Bethlehem, to the sturdy mount that carried Jesus to Jerusalem at the start of his trip to the grave. A donkey’s back and shoulders bear a mark akin to a cross; the legend is that the donkey Jesus rode to Jerusalem followed him to Golgotha and the shadow of the cross fell on his shoulders and was forever thus cast in his fur. Sadly, the story of the pregnant Mary riding a donkey may be as suspect as that: Nowhere in the Gospels do the writers mention a donkey coming along on that trip.
But then, nowhere in his Gospel does the good doctor Luke explain what it was really like inside that stable. This is what Jo-Jo has taught me.
In America today, we sanitize everything. We are all Howard Hughes now. Many grocery stores offer disinfectant wipes so we can clean the shopping cart’s handles before we touch it; God forbid we make contact with a germ. I love Louis Pasteur as much as the next guy, but, having once carried Purell to church for use after the Sign of Peace, I’m trying cut back.
As we have sanitized our lives, so we have also sanitized the Christmas story. We have made this stable, this “mean estate,” a romantic, straw-strewn birthing suite, with a supporting cast of merry animals straight from the set of Snow White. The stable we envision, the one that is depicted in the wood or marble crèches on our mantles, is like my little barn the week before the animals moved in: rough and cozy and clean, scented with fresh green hay and aromatic wood chips. Add a Wii and a sleeping bag, and my teen-aged son would have been content there for a week.
But, oh, look at it now. There’s a reason no one sells Eau de Donkey Dung.
I keep a clean barn; I have four small helpers who carry my DNA, and they know that every day, from 4-5 P.M., they’ve got barn duty. We scrub, shovel, and rake. We replace wood shavings that are only minimally dirty; we don plastic gloves and collect by hand the small and plentiful globs of manure that dot the paddock and stalls. We may own the only barn in Massachusetts that’s actually been vacuumed.
And yet, it’s still filthy.
As I pick through donkey droppings, I think of what a stable 2000 years ago would have looked like. A real, working stable, not a suburban play barn like my family has. A stable of sweaty, dirty animals, braying and groaning, drooling and defecating, with no Lysol or Purell around. A stable with no fresh water or toilet or fly bait. A stable with old, musty straw, not second-cut hay newly delivered and neatly stacked by D&J Farm Supplies.
In the November issue of Martha Stewart Living, Martha is pictured serving Thanksgiving dinner in her barn. This is not some old barn that’s been lovingly restored as a home; it’s her real barn, where her five horses live. The dinner table and guests are surrounded by stalls from which handsome black horses look out at the feast.
Toss a scrubbed and smiling infant in the midst, and it could be a modern living Nativity. Nativity by Pottery Barn, that’s where we are today. In the crèche on my piano, there is no plastic pile of manure, no tiny black dots to replicate buzzing flies. Can’t say that I want them. I am a woman who vacuums her barn.
But think of what we rinse out of the faith when we sanitize the manger. It was, after all, the purpose of this whole “yes, as a matter of fact, I was born in a barn” thing: Mild, He lays His glory by.
Deliver the God-Child into Trump Plaza, and suddenly you’ve lost the whole point. The Word made Flesh and dwelling among us necessarily includes odors and noise and poverty, the rude stuff of the human condition. Banish them, and banish Him, He whose first nursery was filth. There is a hard message in that manger; it portends suffering we prefer to forget, and it asks of us work that we’d rather not do. The Nativity by Pottery Barn, in contrast, is not about hard truths, but simplicity, with pets. Our Jo-Jo is a pet, and her stall is cleaner than that dank manger under a star. She will teach us to shovel well, watch where we walk, and leave a little dust in the crèche.
– Jennifer Graham is a writer, editor, and novice donkey handler in the suburbs of Boston.