FLOTUS’ White House Christmas make-over has been much criticised. Photographs have certainly made it seem more frightful than festive. (Critics may have a point: I mean, who uplights a Christmas tree?) My vexation is not caused by the glitter, fake snow and willow arcade (relatively speaking), but by a Nativity scene snapped recently by a friend.
Nativity scenes are typically tacky and anachronistic because (Western) people have difficulty accepting that the King of Kings was born in a barn. Jesus’ birth is thus conventionally laden with misplaced grandeur.
The White House’s Nativity takes this to a level I’ve not previously seen. And for the record, this is not Trump bashing – Melania found this objet d’art in the Obama’s decoration box – although their approach to festive fanfare heightens the point.
It occasions little surprise that Jesus is born in the Judean equivalent of a penthouse suite, high above the hoi poli and with an external façade decorated with Corinthian columns, the most elaborate of the classical design order. That’s not all. The Gospel of St Matthew mentions the Three Kings but it is only from later sources that we learn they arrived on different animals (Melchior, from Europe, on a horse; Caspar, from Arabia, on a camel; Balthazar, from Africa, on an Elephant). Here, the trio sit on European horses. Curiously, the rider of the horse on the right has the aid of stirrups, several centuries before their likely usage.
The pets may be similarly misplaced: dogs were more likely feral than friendly, and the cat on the left is, I think, pure whimsy; cats were largely unknown in Israel and they are not, to my knowledge, mentioned in the Bible (ready to be corrected on this!).
The clothing is also anachronistic and reflective of western silhouettes of the early modern period; most men wear trousers or ‘shorts’. This may reference braccae (‘breeches’), but I think these garments were usually worn by soldiers; certainly, on encountering them in northern Europe, Romans considered them effeminate.
The life of Jesus may well be The Greatest Story Ever Told, but if it is to be told, there is surely a responsibility, perhaps more now than ever, to tell it sensitively, if not accurately. Whatever this Nativity represents, ‘traditional’ it most definitely is not.