For the umpteenth time, Mary wondered why she’d allowed herself to be talked into this. True, she and Joseph had the right names, were recently married, and were about to become parents—and yes, the absence of her baby’s biological father, and the fact that she owned a donkey (and was quite capable of riding it) might be seen as just perfect by some. But all that aside, she wasn't sure that doing the Vicar ‘a favour’ was worth the embarrassment of having her fat, pregnant body paraded around in public.
Having wrestled her way into the voluminous, itchy costume—as provided by the sewing group of All Saints church, South Bethel (Bethlehem, for one night only), Mary turned to the mirror that hung on the wall behind her. The costume fit okay-ish, but her hair was a mess and the worry of the last few months could still be seen on her face. Smudges of exhaustion lay beneath equally dark eyes and her pasty-white complexion, free of cosmetics, appeared stark beneath the electric lights. The Vicar had been adamant though: the cast of The Nativity should be ‘Au Naturel’ where possible. Apparently, this helped to make the performance more real.
A quick brush of her hair, and Mary reached for the headdress that was, admittedly, a lot nicer than the tea-towel she’d been expecting. Carefully positioning it atop her long, black tresses, she realised that lack of a recent haircut, for once, worked in her favour. After all, if the Vicar wanted realism…
“Hiya!” a high-pitched voice shouted from the floor below. Sticking her head around the bedroom door, Mary peered down the staircase. Her elder sister, Faith, was standing in the hallway with her daughter in her arms. Angel, almost two now, also had a part in the Vicar’s grand production, and was resplendent in— a sheet?
“Is that her costume?” Mary asked, staring at the thick cotton dubiously.
Faith grinned at her. “Nah, this is just protection. I'll take it off when we get to the church. Underneath she’s wearing white satin and enough frills that, with the wind in the right direction, I reckon she could fly.” She shifted her daughter’s weight, bouncing her up and down until the toddler giggled in approval, and jingled. Bells, it seemed, were also part of the hidden costume. Then she looked back at Mary. “You ready yet?”
“Almost.” Mary gave her reflection a last ‘look over’ before rubbing her pronounced baby-bump, as if in reassurance, and stepping out onto the landing. Lifting up her long skirt, she cautiously made her way down the stairs.
“Wow,” Faith said as Mary arrived beside her. “You really do look like your namesake… how I imagine her looking, anyway.”
“Considering where she lived, I’d have said she’d be a bit more tanned,” Mary commented.
She’d expected her sister to laugh at that, but instead, Faith’s eyes narrowed. “Now you mention it—you do look a little peaky. Is everything okay with the baby?” she asked.
“You mean, apart from the chronic back-ache, night cramps, insomnia and the fact that I look like Augustus Gloop? Yeah, everything’s fine.”
Faith opened her mouth to reply, her expression sympathetic, but Angel beat her mother to it. Waving her pudgy arms in the air, she once again shouted, “Hiya!” at the top of her voice, demanding their attention.
Mary latched onto the conversational ‘out’ on offer. Grabbing one of Angel’s flailing hands, she kissed the soft knuckles. “Hiya to you too, Angel. If the original Mary had been greeted with enthusiasm like that, she’d never have set foot in that smelly stable.”
Faith laughed. “Mary giving birth in a cosy Inn wouldn’t be quite the same though,” she pointed out. “Joseph is treating you right, isn’t he, Mary?”
The unexpected question, bluntly delivered, shocked Mary. She turned to Faith slowly. “Yes. Apart from spending too much time in that shed of his, coming back covered in wood shavings, and refusing to tell me what he’s up to, he treats me like I'm the most precious treasure in the world. Which feels odd, to be honest, because even though we've known each other forever, I never dreamed we’d end up as a couple. Especially when… you know.”
Faith looked clueless, so Mary continued on, “Let’s face it; there aren’t many men who’d take on an already pregnant wife. So I guess…”
“He loves you,” Faith finished for her. “And really, Mary, it’s not that surprising—he’s been crazy about you since you were kids!”
Mary began fussing with Angel’s fine, blonde, baby curls. “Hmm… I’m not so sure about that, but I’ll accept that he might love me now. I can’t think why else he’d insist on marrying me, and giving my baby a father—someone to rely on.”
“Exactly,” Faith agreed. “And you, Mary, do you love Joseph?”
Silence descended over the hallway, and Mary realised that even Angel was watching her with uncharacteristic solemnity. “I…” she stopped, unsure of quite how to answer her sister.
Faith's expression became thoughtful. “You know, I never realised it before, but there’s something missing from The Nativity story: How Mary felt about Joseph and vice versa. I mean, I know it was about duty, and honouring God’s wishes, but surely they must have…”
Her words were cut short as the front door flew open, powered by a blast of cold air and male frustration.
“Come on, ladies, get moving. Joe and I are nithered out here, and the donkey’s getting restless.” Faith’s husband, Matthew, stood in the doorway, dressed for his role as The Nativity's narrator. The long, all-encompassing costume actually suited him, which was surprising. Mary was more used to seeing him in a pinstriped suit, with a briefcase and highly polished shoes, befitting his career in accounting.
“Daaadeee! Hiya!” Angel shouted, in obvious delight.
“Hiya, baby. Now, why don’t you come to me, and I’ll put you in your car seat. Because it’s time we were off!” Matthew said, holding out his arms at exactly the same moment that his daughter started to squirm. Safely transitioned from one parent to the other, she immediately stuck her thumb in her mouth and rested her head on her father’s shoulder, looking as angelic as her name.
Faith snorted a laugh as her husband and child disappeared, out into the frosty darkness of Christmas Eve’s early evening. “And Matthew’s word is once again gospel. That child was a daddy’s girl from the moment she set eyes on him. Mind you, one blink of those baby blues and he was pretty much enslaved for life too.”
“She must take after her mother then,” Mary said, a smile curving her lips.
Faith grinned. “Yeah, I guess you could say that. Now, talking of smitten men…”
Mary held up her hand. “But we weren’t, and we aren’t going to either, because we haven’t got time. Just grab your coat and let’s do what the man ordered: get moving and get to that church. I’ve yet to see the Vicar lose his cool—but there’s always a first time!”
It was a bit of a squash in Matthew's car, but the church wasn't far. A small horsebox, with Hope the donkey inside it, trundled behind them.
At the church they were greeted by the Vicar and his family, some of whom wore shepherd and angel costumes. As the rest of the cast arrived—including three of the church wardens, looking suitably majestic as the wise men—Angel’s ‘sheet’ was removed, and the bells on her costume tinkled merrily as wings were tied in place. Then came the arrival of various farm animals and a camel, and Mary could only gape, slack-jawed.
A glance at Joe, and enlightened pride followed. So this was what he'd been working on.
Skilfully crafted from wood, sheepskin and fake fur, he’d even thought to fit the animals with wheels—for ease of positioning when needed. Only Hope was the live equivalent of that long ago mount. Mary prayed that her old family pet would act with dignity, in a venue filled with both regular and seasonal church goers.
As everyone took their places, she allowed her husband to hoist her onto Hope’s back. It was getting hard to move around.
“You okay?” Joseph murmured, his breath fogging in the cold air. His large, warm-brown eyes stared at her intently, shadowed by his headdress.
Mary shivered, feeling oddly shy, and nodded. “Yes, thanks, Joe,” she said, smiling at him. Was there more than concern in his gaze? Her heartbeat quickened.
But then they were told to ‘get ready’—and the moment was gone.
Stretching the material of her gown over her bump, Mary emphasised her condition for the first part of the re-enactment. Later, when the baby Jesus was placed in her arms, she’d rearrange the flowing costume to hang loose, and shield her stomach with the heavily swaddled doll. It had all been practiced, again and again, until the Vicar was satisfied that everyone knew what they were doing.
And they did. Everything progressed smoothly, except for the reading from Luke, when the angel appeared to the shepherds and shouted, “Hiya!” with the comedic timing that only a modern-day Angel could achieve.
The church looked beautiful, decked out in greenery and red holly berries that glowed in the light from banks of candles—placed well out of reach of the congregation’s youngest members. The Bible passages were heard clearly, and the music issuing from the ornately carved organ combined with hundreds of enthusiastic voices, singing age-old carols. The words lodged themselves in Mary’s soul, and rare tears of happiness prickled at her eyes.
The past year had not been easy. She could still remember the terror of discovering that she was pregnant, with no one to stand by her. But Joseph had proved her wrong. Looking at him now, singing lustily, with his face bathed in golden candle light, Mary let the last doubt slip from her mind. The life inside her was real, touchable, but so was the man who’d offered to be there for them.
Though their relationship had never been all hearts and flowers, or anything approaching traditional, that didn’t make it less valid.
She watched as Joe turned to look over at Hope, making sure she was still content to munch on the provided hay. Then he pulled a face at Angel, until she giggled at him over Faith’s shoulder. And suddenly, Mary was reminded of a Bible verse—not one about Christmas, but one that could have been written for her.
1 Corinthians 13:7 – Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
Well, Faith had known her all her life, Hope the donkey had carried her here, and Joseph, it seemed, had never given up. He’d persevered, until doubt had vanished, and she'd slowly come to recognise her true worth—and his.
Perhaps Joe had loved her since childhood, and it was time for her to look at the bigger picture.
Christmas would always be about the most precious of gifts, a child, but it was also a celebration of the love and strength that can exist between two people—because these are the gifts that extend outwards, to family, to friends, and to the rest of the world.