By Judi Martha Collins, published in the November/December 2021 issue of Lakelife.
The title of this art feature story is not original to me. “The Great Nativity Riot” (below) is a Christmas story written by George Heiring, a quintessential storyteller whose poems and essays appeared regularly in national, regional and local publications including Lakelife magazine. He also authored four books. “The Great Nativity Riot” is one of the short stories in his book, The Seasonal Heart, Stories & Art In The Holiday Spirit. George was one of us. Like many of his other published works, The Seasonal Heart, was written while the noted writer lived at Lake Oconee. The hardback, coffee table book is George’s celebration of the holidays, and richly illustrated by local artist Gail Vail with special contributions from seven other Lake Country artists. Art illustrations in The Seasonal Heart draw from age-old symbols of Christmas: a mythological Father Christmas, a teddy bear, a decorated evergreen tree, an antique rocking horse, a candle framed by stained glass windows, an angel radiant in the glow of holy light, winter snow scenes, donkeys and deer and sheep. It is the comforting familiarity of these iconic symbols that evoke emotions and draw the reader closer to traditional values that underpin George’s writings. Sometimes with laughter, sometimes with sober poignancy, George shares his holiday memories and helps us recall our own. And in the last-minute shopping rush and crush of November and December festivities, his stories remind us to pause and refocus on friends, and family, and the needs of others—the true spirit of Christmas. Lakelife magazine and the artists who illustrated The Seasonal Heart pay tribute to a fine wordsmith. We are pleased to share a reprint of George Heiring’s Christmas story, “The Great Nativity Riot.” Our friend departed this life on July 12, 2021. But he will not be forgotten, for we carry his stories forward in our hearts.
The Great Nativity Riot By George Heiring
It started innocently enough. As usual, the decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. That sent Joseph and Mary scurrying down the aisle of the church toward the cardboard stable. Mary placed her Cabbage Patch Doll in the manger, tucking the rag wrappings neatly into the straw to keep her baby warm. Joseph watched soberly, rubbing his nose and sniffling, for he was with cold. At the rear of the sanctuary, preschool teachers, taking their cue from carols ringing from the choir loft, launched wave after wave of biblical hosts. “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night” put a half-dozen miniature shepherds in motion. Clutching crooked staffs twice their height, adorned in striped bathrobes topped by burnoose of pillow ticking and burlap, they came forward hesitantly, their parents video cameras and cell phones recording every precious step. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Now came the seraphim and cherubim, resplendent in white sheets topped by wire-and-tinsel halos and packing wings ingeniously feathered with strips from plastic milk bottles. Over this fluttering host, a battery-powered star of Bethlehem shined brightly, carried by the biggest angel using all the strength she could muster. Thus, the crowd at the stable grew. When the cue came for the wise men to arrive (“We Three Kings”), it seemed uncomfortably clear there was no room for them at the manger. Nevertheless, the three pressed forward, intent on their historic mission to deliver the first Christmas presents.
In recounting the event, the phrase “pushy wise men” has been used, and that is probably unfair. But indisputably captured on eight different video tapes is the image of Balthazar coming in contact with an adoring shepherd, who stumbled backwards against a determined guardian angel. Sensing a threat to the sleeping babe, the angel retaliated with a push, sending the innocent shepherd reeling into a fellow herdsman armed with a crooked staff, which he abruptly lowered like a crossing gate to back off the magi. All three kings were dropped on their rumps, still holding tight to their gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Now it came to pass that others in this heavenly and earthly host were delighted to find this nativity stuff was not as boring as expected. So, all entered into the fun by shoving the bathrobe or sheet next to them. Before Sunday school teachers could reach the fracas, the star of Bethlehem abruptly descended, its lights still gleaming as it cleaved the cardboard stable in two. Mary, ever the divine role model, snatched up her doll and snarled at the mob, “Get away from Jesus, you guys!” Joseph took up a defensive position behind her, sniffing harder and with greater menace. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall quell riots in improbable ways. The peacemaker at this moment was three and a half years old. She had taken her angelic role quite seriously, allowing her mother to braid her blond hair, pin it to the top of her head and crown it with gold tinsel. However, the tinsel was now askew over one eye. During the two-minute free-for-all she put her hands over her ears and yelled at intervals, “Stop it this incense!”
No one paid attention until she pushed the volume up another notch. “Peace on birth!” she screamed, “PEACE ON BIRTH!” The chaos stilled somewhat. Then the littlest angel began to sing “Away In The Manger” in her strongest voice, recalling the lyrics as best she could. “Way in da maingee no cupboard a bed,” the tinsel haloed angel sang. Mary joined her in a voice now refined and gentle...”the little Lord Jesus”...as she warily put baby Jesus back in the straw. From the loft, the choir quickly found the harmony “...lay down his sweet head.”
The music brought order to the nativity, probably because it is against the nature of small humans to slug a shepherd or bop an angel on the halo while a carol is being sung. “The stars in the sky, looked down where he lay...” The biggest angel hoisted the Star of Bethlehem over her head. “The little lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.” The wise men, their cotton beards dangling loosely, knelt, at last, before the manger. Some in the church would just as soon forget the great nativity riot ever occurred while others enjoy replaying the videos to see how their kid fared in biblical combat. But there is a small miracle embedded in this event all parents seem to have missed—their kids were able to bring a foolish war to a quick, peaceful end with no help at all from the adults present. Adults, it seems, have yet to master “peace on birth.”