My Salt Dough Nativity

One of my yearly Christmas traditions is making salt dough ornaments.  Last Christmas, I started making a nativity set for our home. So far, I’ve made the core trio: Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, whom my husband lovingly refers to as “peanut Jesus” because, well, you can see the resemblance. 

You’d think that a nativity set is fairly standard.  It wasn’t until I started making my own that I realized how many decisions needed to go into the process.  I needed to sort out the biblical nativity from the traditional ones and also all the commercial images that are available to us. 

Let’s start with clothing.  What did Mary and Joseph wear?  It was Israel, not the renaissance, so this sort of clothing is out. 

I went for simple, earthy colors, and robes that people who traveled long distances might wear. The biblical account (Luke 2:4-5) says they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem (a little over 70 miles as the crow flies). Mary’s veil looks a bit like a bonnet, but I wanted to make her look a little more feminine.

Jesus is wrapped in purple, which I admit, has no biblical origin.  Purple cloth was expensive, and these folks were poor.  But I like the symbolism of the Prince of Peace wrapped in kingly colors.  I painted his manger gold.  Feed troughs weren’t typically constructed from this material, but once again, I liked the symbolism.

This year, I’m tackling the wise men.  First, I have to decide how many to make.  The bible doesn’t say how many there were, just that they brought three types of gifts.  I could make two or 20 if I wanted, but 20 wouldn’t fit very well on my mantel. 

Clothing will be a problem here too.  I’m not going to use this as my model.

I’m fairly certain the magi weren’t three white guys dressed in circus clown outfits, bearing potluck casseroles. 

We’re all used to the song “We Three Kings,” but the New Testament accounts don’t refer to them being royalty.  Old Testament prophecies are the source for this tradition, especially Psalm 72:10:  “May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!” The Magi were from the east, and they brought very expensive tributes.  It’s not a long shot.  John Piper connects another prophecy to the Magi in a 1997 Advent sermon. Isaiah 60:3 mentions light and kings: “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” 

You might be wondering why I’m putting so much thought into my nativity set.  “It’s just a Christmas decoration,” you’re probably saying.  I admit, I get a bit obsessive compulsive about my artwork.  But I think it’s important to continually sort out what our culture teaches us about Jesus from tradition and what is actually in the Bible.  When it comes to putting my faith into practice, before I fire up the ovens and let the dough harden, getting set in my ways, it’s good for me examine the Jesus I worship and hold him to the light of scripture. 

Published in: on December 22, 2007 at 1:01 pm  Comments (7)  
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  1. I like the idea of a salt dough nativity set: salt, as we should be, and bread of life symbolism.

    I also like your rethinking of images: how should they look if they were in Israel?

    My question: why does every one assume they were poor? Maybe I am missing/forgetting a passage in the Bible, but couldn’t Joseph been a successful carpenter?

    Another thought that has been chatted about in some Messianic circles is that Jesus was not born in a manger but rather a sukkah. Here’s one attempt at arguing the point:

    My personal thought was that if they were going to Joseph’s home town, surely as good Jewish people, they would have stayed with family, not a hotel.
    I also saw in one Bible that the words “there was no room at the inn” was a phrase added later.

    Just random thoughts. Regardless of the conclusions that may or may not be reached, I like the fact that personal creativity is being used to celebrate the birth of our Savior.

  2. I like the figures very much. Simple. . .folksy. . .sincere.

    My wife did this with a group of first and second graders. The results were wonderful. There is so much more meaning to glean from making the nativity set oneself.

  3. Jill,

    As always, great insight. First, I love the bread of life and the salt connection! I didn’t think of it! It’s just perfect! Thanks so much!

    I’d never heard of the Sukkot connection, but that’s a very interesting argument. I’ve heard that Jesus probably wasn’t born during this time of year, but I’d never heard that holiday connection before.

    When we (my husband and I) studied in Israel at Jerusalem University College, one of our instructors, when we were in Bethlehem,or maybe it was in Nazareth, showed us some homes that were more like our concept of caves. He argued that people kept their livestock at the front of their caves/homes, and mary and joseph were probably still staying with relatives (because of the census) but just in front with the animals. The picture is a little different than the one we get with the wooden stable.

    About the poor thing, that’s a great point. Maybe it would be best said “middle class.” My pastor calls Joseph a “blue collar” guy. Being a carpenter, he certainly wasn’t a wealthy landowner, and the class system was a bit differnet back then. I don’t claim to know all the distinctions. But, there’s one clue in the scriptures that shows they didn’t have a lot of money. Mary offered a purification sacrifice when Jesus was circumcised: “When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons” (LUke 2:22-24). The offering she gives is described in Leviticus as one a woman can offer if she doesn’t have enough money to afford a lamb: “If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’ (Leviticus 12:8).

    So, you can infer from the sacrifice that they offer that they didn’t have enough money to buy a lamb, but that’s sort of a round-about way of getting to it. I suppose you combine everything and come to that conclusion.

  4. Renaissance Guy,

    Thanks! I’m glad you like my little creations. I hope the wise men go so well. I tried adding some sheep, and they turned into little blobs on sticks, so I’m not too optimistic. I can see how nativity making would be a great project for kids. What a great idea.

  5. Another kind of silly minor point: Since B. and I are traveling over Christmas, I was thinking about Mary and Joseph, and wondering how much cash they had on them as they traveled…things always seem to come up during traveling. Anyway, I wondered if when they had to dedicate Jesus, if they were limited to their cash on hand…hence the “budget” sacrifice. On the other hand, surely they knew Mary would likely give birth while they were near the Temple, so they could have taken extra money to deal with the purification costs without making a second trip later.

    It SO very much doesn’t make any difference, but I like to always try to look at stories throught different views just to see what information might pop up.

  6. Way to put yourself in the story! That’s a wonderful way to read it. I think that’s a good way to approach any bible story, putting ourselves in the shoes of the people who are in it, imagining what we’d do in the situation. I think it’s a good tool for any critical reader, for all sorts of reading, not just for scripture. I try to get my literature students to do that too, to put themselves in the stories that we read that are from different cultures and times, to really understand the characters and the choices they make. It can help us understand them so much more.

  7. This is fun. One of my favorite radio programs, Midday Connection, recnetly hosted a Nativity special, and they encouraged their listeners to send in pictures of their nativities. Lots of really special ones. Here’s the link to the picture:

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