Christmas reflections on a Peruvian nativity scene

SIM mission workers Mike Fischer, along with his wife Kerry and daughter Meghan, are moving to Peru this year to train church pastors and leaders in the southern Andes. Here, Mike reflects on a Peruvian nativity scene they purchased and how one Christmas tradition is impacted by culture.

Culture is the sort of thing we rarely notice: It's easy to assume that the way we do something is the only sensible way to do it.  That is, until we run into someone else's idea of 'sensible', and then we are confronted!

Poking around one of the local markets in Peru a few years ago, we found some little clay nativity sets for sale. Rather cute, aren't they, with baby Jesus' chubby cheeks at both ends? They only cost a few Sols (one Peruvian 'Nuevo Sol' = about 20 pence), so we bought a couple.

It wasn't until we got home and put it out the following Christmas, that we wondered about that 'manger' the baby Jesus is in. Or rather, on. Then the penny dropped: It's a little replica of 'the hitching post of the sun', the ancient Inca monument at Machu Picchu.

No one really knows what these stones were for. The Spanish conquistadors smashed them to pieces wherever they found them, in line with their policy of wiping out the religion of the Inca. So this is one of the few surviving examples. It could be some sort of sacrificial altar, or maybe (as has long been suggested) it played some sort of function in a ritual on the winter solstice, serving to 'prevent' the sun moving further north.

The idea behind the 'hitching post' might now be lost to us, but the fact is that the Quechua (direct descendants of the Inca) of present-day Peru seem quite happy to fuse their ancient religious ideas with Christianity – as shown by the little nativity sets you can buy in the markets.

We might be tempted to view the Quechua syncretism (fusion of belief systems) with a bit of disdain and suppose that we'd never do that sort of thing. But here's a question: Have you ever wondered where we get our typical nativity scene from, in the first place?

Now, it's fair enough that we put Mary and Joseph into the picture. And the 'manger' gets a mention in Matthew's Gospel (although it was likely not the stand-alone piece of furniture we imagine). But where do we get the oxen from, and the donkey, and the rest of the farmyard? Try as you might, you won't find the adoring animals in the nativity accounts of the Bible (see Matthew 1:18 - 2:12, and Luke 2:1-20).

The idea comes from the 'Pseudo-Gospel of Matthew', a 7th Century A.D. text trying to pass itself off as, well, gospel:

And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's crib. The very animals, therefore, the ox and the ass, having Him in their midst, incessantly adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Habakkuk the prophet, saying: Between two animals you are made manifest. In the same place Joseph remained with Mary three days.

Now don't go throwing your nativity set out the window just yet! But it is worth wondering how many things we assume to be Christian, really are Christian. It's easy to do it with a Nativity scene; but so what, nativity scenes are cute – especially Peruvian ones!

But it should get us thinking. For if mixing up our Christian thinking with non-biblical things is that easy, then what else might we be doing it with?  What if we're doing it with something not trivial, but important; something that compromises the heart of what we believe? And how do you think our 'consumer mindset' might affect the way we go about our Christianity in our own communities?

Please pray

  • For the Fischers as they prepare to make ministry training accessible for church leaders and aspiring pastors outside the urban centres of Peru.
  • For wisdom as mission workers encounter different and challenging cultural issues while serving the Lord overseas.

  • Pray God's people will be good witnesses for Jesus Christ this Christmas.