The nativity scene is arguably the most iconic image of Christmas ― it’s splashed on the fronts of Christmas cards, displayed in people’s homes, acted out in church plays, and even planted on public property.
Despite some slight variations, the scene is usually the same ― Mary and Joseph in a stable, leaning tenderly over a manger where the baby Jesus is peacefully sleeping. A perfect, holy, heterosexual family.
Kittredge Cherry, a retired lesbian pastor and author from Los Angeles, is convinced that this image of a traditional family only scratches the surface of the Christmas story. After all, Cherry told The Huffington Post, the Bible claims Jesus himself comes from a very untraditional family ― he technically had two fathers (God and his adoptive dad, Joseph). And she pointed out that Mary gave birth without having sex with a man, not unlike lesbian mothers who use artificial insemination to start their families.
So a few years back, Cherry reimagined the nativity scene in a way that challenged the notion of a “traditional family” that is so prized in conservative Christian culture today.
Her nativity included two Marys and two Josephs.
Cherry said that the 2009 photo series, titled “Love Makes A Holy Family,” was not intended to be historically or biblically accurate, but to challenge people to expand their notions about what a family is, and what it means for Jesus to come from such an untraditional family.
“The conservative Christians of today tend to act like they own the copyright on Jesus and they get mad when someone changes the image and switches the figures around,” Cherry said. “They don’t want to think that Jesus could be one of us, but that was the message of the whole Christmas story ― that God is with us.”
Cherry is a retired Christian minister who has spent decades preaching about God’s love for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. She was ordained by the Metropolitan Community Churches, a queer-friendly denomination, and worked in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. She’s advocated for Christian churches to be more welcoming and inclusive of LGBTQ Christians, and she knows firsthand the damaging effects of a theology that bars them from experiencing family life.
Cherry said that Christmas is a time that is especially hard for some queer Christians.
“People in the gay and lesbian community feel excluded from the church much of the time,” she said. “Then at Christmastime there’s a lot of depression, because there’s so much emphasis on the church and the family, and a lot of gay and lesbian people have been excluded from their families, or their families won’t let you bring your partner home for Christmas.”
Cherry created her nativity scenes in 2009 by purchasing two sets of figures from Amazon and mixing them up. She took photos of the newly formed set, and eventually, decided to sell the images as Christmas cards.
While the cards only sell about 100 copies every year, Cherry said her images always tend to provoke much discussion.
This year, an artist in California decided to turn her images into ornaments and sell them online, reportedly without Cherry’s permission. The ornaments caught the eye of a conservative Christian group and resulted in a flurry of articles online.
Cherry wasn’t expecting her photo series to pop up in the news this year. She said it was an “unexpected gift” to be able to share these images with the world again ― especially considering the challenges that queer Americans will face after President-elect Donald Trump and his vice-president Michael Pence, a conservative Christian, come into office.
Below, a YouTube video that Cherry made of her nativity sets.
Rev. Anthony Fatta, a United Methodist Church pastor from California, told The Huffington Post it was important to see alternative, queer-friendly versions of the nativity. He believes much homophobia is rooted in heteronormative portrayals of either Adam and Eve or Mary and Joseph. As a result of those narratives, queer kids grow up knowing what it feels like to be left out of certain spaces, like Mary and Joseph were during their search for an inn, or to feel different from everyone else in your family, as Jesus probably felt during his youth.
“For American Christians, rethinking and reinterpreting the Nativity scene can help us all realize how broad God’s love is supposed to be,” he told The Huffington Post.
Alex McNeill, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group More Light Presbyterians, said that Cherry’s interpretation of the nativity speaks to the heart of the Christmas story.
“As a queer person, if I don’t see myself anywhere in the narrative of the birth, life, and death of Jesus, it can be hard to imagine that my incarnation as a queer body is included in God’s love,” McNeill said. “A queer Nativity scene pulls me into a sacred imagination of seeing queer bodies as also capable of embodying and working for God’s love made manifest in the world.”
Cherry believes that images of queer spirituality are going to be important over the next few years, to counter the conservative Christian agenda that the new administration will push.
“It’s going to be important to express that there’s another way to follow Christ and that is the way that embraces all the people that are excluded,” Cherry said. “So I hope [these images] provide not just an alternative view of society but another way to be a Christian.”