Religion: Behind The First Noel

Who were the wise men? What about that star? And is it possible Jesus was born in Nazareth? How the story of Christ's birth came to be

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Katie Larson is little too young to get it.  Her dad Brian has just slipped a blue-and-white-striped shepherd smock over her head. "Look at you," he says. "It's perfect." But Katie, 2, doesn't think so. Two years ago she was Baby Jesus, and that costume was much more comfortable. She begins to cry. "Do you want to hold this cute little baby sheep?" Brian asks, waving a stuffed toy before his daughter's beet-red face. Still no sale.

Katie's brother Tyler, 6, is more at ease with all this. He obligingly pulls on the robe, cord belt and headdress worn by dozens of predecessor shepherds over years of Christmas pageants here at the First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights, Ill. "Now, what do shepherds do?" asks pageant director Phyllis Green. "They protect their sheep," he says promptly. His older brother Drew, who at 8 has two years more of this particular story under his shepherd's belt, chimes in, "And the angels come."

As if on cue, from a Sunday-school classroom upstairs wafts the sound of 70 angelic young voices rendering a still shaky but clearly heartfelt version of Away in a Manger.

Across the U.S., similar scenes are unfolding, as small children progress from incomprehension to playtime participation to the beginnings of actual Christmas understanding, thanks to pageants ranging from the most modest cardboard-camel presentations to near professional productions playing to thousands of people a week.

No performance, not even those working from the prefabricated scripts and scores provided by Christian entertainment companies, will be exactly like another, because no two 6-year-old shepherds are alike.

None will be precisely like the New Testament Gospel accounts, either, a fact that causes concern to almost no one. For children like Katie and Tyler and Drew, learning about Jesus at this age is like learning that birds have wings: the more complicated parts will be filled in later. At First Presbyterian, on the makeshift stage at the front of the sanctuary, the really important point for all Christians is being made: that God loved us all and came to earth in the form of a little baby, like our little brother or sister, and it was such a miracle that we shepherds watched and the fifth-grade angels sang. What more do we need to know?

And yet how much more there is to learn, and how peculiar it is to find that the actual Gospel Nativities are the part of Jesus' biography about which Bible experts have the greatest sense of uncertainty--even more than the scripture about the miracles Jesus performed or his sacrificial death. Indeed, the Christmas story that Christians know by heart is actually a collection of mysteries. Where was Jesus actually born? Who showed up to celebrate his arrival? How do the details of the stories reflect the specific outreach agendas of the men who wrote them?

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