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Some thoughts following a surfeit of “lowly Cattle Sheds”

W. John Green


The use of this word to introduce the subject has serious implications. The author betrays his inability to provide a precise or even an estimated date for the occurrence. This suggests that he could not be bothered to find out, in spite of St. Luke’s telling us that it was “when Quirinius was governor of Syria”. Reference to Roman historians could, we would have expected, enabled the date to be estimated within fairly close limits. Had the report commenced with, for instance, “In the XIV year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar…..” this would have eliminated any doubt as to its being a matter of history, rather than a work of fiction. “Once” does have associations with fiction, “Once upon a time” being an accepted introduction to the fairy tale, the sine qua non of which is that it did not really happen. Well¸ perhaps it didn’t – not like that anyway.


The word “royal” can apply to any person who can trace lineage, however tenuous, back to some king. e.g. the “Michaels” of Kent.. There may have been several royal Davids among the Hebrew dynasties. It is only by inference therefore that we can assume that the author is referring to King David of Israel, c.1000 B.C. The use of the word “city” is also misleading, since at the time of that David it appears to have had only one well, quite incapable of supplying the needs of a city. Bethlehem had the status of a village rather than a city. This is borne out by the story of the shepherds who managed to come in from the hills and find Mary and Joseph and the babe, apparently on the same night. Had Bethlehem been a city, they might have taken weeks to locate a single birth taking place other than in the city maternity unit.

On examining the details, one cannot help feeling that the Romans were a rather stupid lot. Why was it deemed necessary for everyone claiming descent from King David to get to Bethlehem, to “register”? (It should not be necessary to point out that “David’s Line” mentioned in another carol, is not a reference to some privately owned light railway providing a tourist attraction in the Judean hills.) All that a person should have had to do to register was to answer a few simple questions about their ancestry, wherever they were. Could it be that Joseph, during the nine long months since the Annunciation, had re-read the Prophet Isaiah and thought that he had better get out of Nazareth so as to get the right location? It is strange, too, that a man depicted as an ideal, considerate husband, should have left it until the last minute and got the manger organised just in the nick of time.


This is an unwarranted assumption. St. Luke tell us only that the infant Jesus was “laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn”. St. Matthew, telling of the wise men’s visit, says that they had to go into a “house” in Bethlehem to worship the infant Christ. From this and what we know of eastern hospitality, it is more than likely that an innkeeper, unable to provide facililties, arranged for Joseph and Mary to stay at the equivalent of the house of “Mrs. Jones just down the road and who does B&B”? In the days before Slumberland mattresses, a hay-filled palliasse could provide quite a comfortable resting place. Some of us found this out during the war. A manger, commandeered to support it in view of the shortage of beds, would not be any hardship for a small child.

There is no justification for assuming that the manger was in a shed at all, much less for the assumption that oxen were standing by. No mother in her right mind would be so heedless of hygiene as to let her new-born child risk getting mixed up with bovine effluvia. Furthermore an inanimate object such as a shed, cannot be described as ‘lowly’ which word means humility of condition or nature. One could speak of a ramshackle hut or broken-down bothy, but there is no scriptural evidence for any of this.


This assumes a flat earth and a geo-centric universe. Had Christ been born in, say, Dunedin rather than Bethlehem, his imagined journey would have been in a diametrically opposite direction. This might have caused Christology to go in a different direction for centuries!


A stall is a compartment for one animal in a stable or shed. It is difficult to see how a child could be “cradled” in a stall. Anyway what happened to the manger? As regards the “stable” – see above.


The N.T. would suggest that these were not the only acquaintances of “Our Saviour Holy”. He associated also with Pharisees, Sadducees, Rich Young Rulers etc. He was sufficiently acquainted with King Herod’s way of life to condemn it and with the banquets and high life of the rich to draw on this knowledge for parables. He was also on such terms with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea that they arranged his burial with no expense spared (thus fulfilling that which was spoken by the prophet etc.).


As a child, this verse always seemed to me to be unfairly used to justify parental oppression and its expectation of unreasonable behaviour. We are told, elsewhere that “…the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” What unnatural behaviour for a newly born child ! Nevertheless several of the more sentimental carols enjoin the baby to ‘hush’. Does this mean that he was making some noise other than crying ? Suggestions ? Reciting the 39 articles or Psalm 119 ?


Then comes the crunch line – “Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as he.” The operative words, of course, are “must” and “obedient”, suggesting that unless a child is totally subservient to its parents’ every whim, it is sinning against God and is therefore eternally damned. This is perhaps expressed in the words, “You should be ashamed of yourself !” which do not encourage happy relationships.


Does anyone really expect to see “Him” in that unlikely setting ? So why is it necessary to make the correction ? As for the “Oxen standing by” – see above. In my case the days prior to my entering heaven – if I am given that privilege - are becoming few, so I hope and pray that it will not involve my being “crowned like a star” – whatever that means, and “waiting around”, dressed in white, presumably for all eternity. I once had to wait around for half an hour, dressed in white, in a hospital, prior to having an X-ray examination. That was boring enough!

In the days when, to the majority of working class people, wearing white was totally impracticable in view of the nature of their work, and at the same time a symbol of their oppressive “white collar” bosses, this may have appealed.. I would now regard it as placing an unacceptable limitation on ways in which I might even enjoy the hereafter. One can only wait and see!

Still, it’s a good tune.

WJG 26.1.2003

© The Estate of William John Green, 2004