Fiction: One Night in Bethlehem
We're finishing 25 Christmas Eves up the only way that seems appropriate. We've looked at quite a few Christmas Eves so far, but it's time to take a gander at the granddaddy of them all. So, without further ado, Mainlining Christmas presents the greatest story ever told... now improved.
By: Erin L. Snyder
The innkeeper was a fat man, and he was exhausted. These were the first two observations going through Joseph’s mind upon setting eyes on the owner. And why shouldn’t he be tired? It was late – nearly midnight. And here was a couple, the woman clearly in labor, on his doorstep.
The innkeeper rubbed his eyes. He didn’t wait for Joseph to start in. “Look, kid. We’re full up. Sorry.”
“What? You can’t be,” Joseph said. “You must have, what, two dozen rooms in this place. Who’s renting two dozen rooms?”
“Almost three dozen,” the innkeeper corrected him. “And it’s these damned stargazers. Pouring in from every town for a hundred leagues. Astrologers, astronomers, you name it. Everyone’s got to come gawk at the giant bloody light in the sky. Or didn’t you notice it?”
“Yeah, we saw the stupid star,” Joseph said.
“Well, apparently this spot’s got the best angle for viewing. I don’t just mean in Bethlehem: I mean this exact inn. Lucky me, right? Goddamn astronomers. I thought Roman soldiers were demanding, but these bastards take the cake.”
Mary cried out in pain.
Joseph sighed. “Look. Can’t you bump someone? My wife’s with child here.”
“Yeah, well my inn’s with mortgage. Word gets out I’m tossing paying guests, folks are liable to steer clear. Before long, I’ll be out of business.”
“We’ll take anything,” Joseph begged.
“You can stay in the manger,” the innkeeper said with a shrug.
“With animals?” Joseph glared.
“You said anything,” the innkeeper replied.
“Joseph,” Mary interrupted between deep breaths. “The manger’s fine.”
“No, it’s not fine,” Joseph said. “I don’t want my wife giving birth knee-deep in cow shit. There’s got to be something else.”
“Sorry,” the innkeeper said, showing no emotion whatsoever. “We’re full up.”
“Look,” Mary said, grabbing her husband’s shoulder hard enough to make him cringe. “I’m sure you keep a very clean manger, and we thank you for your generosity.”
“Yeah. Look, I’ll have my boy follow you out with some water and some rags,” the innkeeper said, relaxing his demeanor a bit.
“But—“ Joseph started.
“Let’s go,” Mary interrupted with a hard tug on his arm.
A few minutes later they were in the stables. The animals were all gathered round, bathed in the light of the star pouring in through the open door. Joseph elbowed a goat in the ribs to get it to move, and it gave him a look that suggested it wanted to show him the business end of its horns, but it thought maybe - just maybe - that wasn’t such a good idea.
Since this whole debacle had started nine months earlier, animals had acted weird around him. It was nothing compared to how they were around his wife, what with birds landing on her fingers and squirrels dropping nuts at her feet and other batshit crazy stuff like that, but there was this bizarre understanding. It was like they knew Joseph would be raising the son of God and they knew better than to fuck with him.
“That’s right,” Joseph said to the goat, as it backed away. He straightened his robe, grateful for the chance to seem tough after the emasculating exchange with the innkeeper.
“Honey,” Mary said, “I could use some water.”
“Yeah. He said the kid would meet us here.”
“That’s peachy, but sooner would be better.”
Joseph rolled his eyes. “Fine.” He walked out of the stable and looked around. A few minutes later he caught sight of a boy, no older than six, carrying a pail of water. He had a handful of rags tossed over one shoulder.
Joseph met him halfway there, tipped him, and headed back into the stables. “Hi, Hon. I’ve got the water.”
“Yeah. Let’s thank HIM again,” Joseph muttered under his breath.
“What was that?”
“Oh. Nothing. Nothing at all.”
Mary was sweating and breathing quickly. “Could you give me a drink?”
“Uh...” Joseph set the pail down and started going through his things.
“Oh. Are you kidding me?”
“The cup. I must have left it on the mule. I’ll go get it.”
“Go quickly. This baby isn’t going to wait.”
“Are you sure? I mean, you know what today is, don’t you?”
“Joseph. I really don’t think--”
“I know, but... it’s the Solstice. Don’t you think that’s a little... inappropriate. This is the son of the true God, right? Shouldn’t his birthday not fall on the center of the pagan calendar? This is already the birthday of, like, a half-dozen deities in the Roman pantheon alone.”
“JUST GET ME A DAMNED CUP!” Mary yelled.
Joseph hurried out of the stable and headed over to where they’d parked the mule. The thing looked up at him cross eyed and half-yawned, half-belched. It didn’t bother getting up first.
It turns out you can get a mule dirt cheap in the desert, provided you don’t care how ugly, old, or stupid the damn thing is. Or how bad it smells, for that matter. Joseph held his nose while he fished through the saddlebag.
In Joseph’s defense, it had been a long nine months, full of prophecy, supernatural visitation, and strange portents. Like any good, God-fearing Jewish man tasked by an angel of the Lord, he was doing his due diligence. But that sure as hell didn’t mean he had to like any of this. He’d put up with a lot of shit these past few months, and it just kept piling up.
His wife was to give birth to the son of God. Great. And before they’d been officially married. Sure. Oh, and it wasn’t enough that it’d been a virgin conception: to officially count as a fully-sanctioned miracle, it had to be a virgin birth.
Yeah. That seemed fair.
Where had Mary even met God? And who gave God the right to shit all over Joseph’s life like this? Ha. Who gave Him the right - who else? God. No conflict of interest there.
Joseph finally found a cup and headed back to the stables. He gave his wife something to drink and did his best to keep her relaxed. A few hours later, the baby was born. Mary looked at the child and teared up, and Joseph was speechless, as well. It was a beautiful boy, and the couple smiled at each other. Joseph gave his wife something to drink and yawned. Mary held the baby close and whispered, “Could you close the window? That star’s light is blinding, and I really need some sleep.”
Joseph walked to the window and found himself staring right into the eyes of a shepherd. More specifically, he was staring at the nearest shepherd in what appeared to be a roving gang of shepherds. And they weren’t alone: a good portion of their flocks had come with them.
“What now?” Joseph asked.
The shepherd gasped. “Are you... is that... we saw the star from our fields. It led us here.”
“Yeah. Star. Got it.”
“It is the sign we were promised!” another shepherd proclaimed, shoving the first out of the way. He faced Joseph at first, then spun to the rest. “Within this manger, our King is born! Oh tidings of great joy!” The shepherds cheered in unison.
Behind him, Mary said, “What in God’s name is going on out there?”
Joseph looked back to try and explain, but before he get a word in, someone yelled from a window overhead, “Shut the hell up!” And someone else: “We’re trying to sleep here! You want me to call for the guards?”
Joseph wanted no trouble. “Look. If you... if you can all promise to be quiet, I’ll let you in for a minute.”
Another cheer rose up, and the crowd poured in through the stable doors. They gathered round a confused Mary, who had only heard bits of the conversation through the window. “Uh... Joseph. Could you... WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?”
Joseph was trying to reach his wife, but he kept tripping over shepherds prostrating themselves before his infant child. “Would you... please... move?” he hissed through his teeth. He eyed one of the shepherd’s canes and briefly wondered if he might be able to pry it away from the guy and, if so, how much damage he could do to the assembled mass.
But that’s when the damned kids showed up. There was a good dozen of them, and they snuck in through the back and hung out behind the shepherds. A few had instruments - flutes, horns, even... God, no... drums.
“No,” Joseph said, frantically. “Do not play.”
“But, Sir. It is the only thing we’ve to offer our Lord.”
“I don’t care. He needs sleep. His mother needs sleep.”
“Sir! Are you the husband of yonder maid?” The voice was different than that of a shepherd, and Joseph looked up in shock. The speaker was large, broad shouldered, and dressed in fine fabrics - finer than anything Joseph had ever seen up close, in fact.
Joseph was dumbstruck. Before he could begin to fathom who this new visitor was, he had to contend with the realization he wasn’t alone: two more men in similar dress appeared beside him, and a large crowd of servants stood behind.
The rich visitor cleared his throat. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Balthazar. My associates, Melchior and Caspar and I have come some distance to be here.”
“Oh. Oh God. Listen,” Joseph said, tripping over another shepherd. He quickly regained his footing. “Listen, please. My wife and I don’t know these people, and I don’t know why they’re here. I’m so sorry they woke you and--”
“Nonsense!” Balthazar laughed. “We haven’t slept in two nights. Had to make haste getting here and all. Besides, you’re the one we want to see. Well, more to the point, your wife and her child.”
“Oh. Ah. Good,” Joseph said, looking to Mary, who was trying to push back shepherds seeking the blessing of her newborn baby. “Uh... how can we help you?”
Balthazar laughed again. “We are kings of a sort, and we’ve come to gaze upon the King of Kings, as prophesied.”
“There he is,” Melchior added, pointing at the baby with his thumb.
“Can’t argue with that,” Caspar put in.
“Oh, my!” Balthazar added. “Where are my manners? We’ve brought gifts for our newborn Lord, of course. Servants! Get those chests in here!”
“Gifts?” Joseph asked.
“Oh my, yes,” Balthazar said. “We’ve brought frankincense from India. It symbolizes ascension. To honor the prophecy the child fulfils, we bring myrrh. And lastly, in recognition of his standing as King of Kings, we brought you gold.”
“Wait. What was that?”
“Frankincense, from far off lands, to symbolize--”
“Oh, yeah, I got that, but what was that last part?” Joseph asked.
“What? You mean the gold? The symbolism isn’t so refined, but--”
Joseph stopped him again. “Just to be clear. Is this symbolic-gold or gold-gold? I mean, first of all, thanks for coming all this way, but I just want to make sure I’m understanding. Is this--”
Melchior interrupted, stepping in front of Balthazar with a bow. “It is both symbol and reality, for this is symbol made real. Just as the child is God and man, so too must the gifts--”
“Joseph,” Mary called out. “Did he say they brought us gold?”
“I... I think they did.”
“How much?” Mary asked.
“The amount isn’t actually so important as what it represents. But I brought a chest full, just in case,” Caspar said. Some servants came in with a massive chest.
“That chest? Is full of gold? For... us?”
“Oh, no. That one’s actually the myrrh. The gold’s coming up next.” Another pair of servants came in with another chest. “But yes. This is for you. Well, technically it’s for the child, but as the boy’s legal and heavenly appointed guardians.... Excuse me, miss. Are you... crying?”
Mary was indeed crying, so Joseph stepped in. “You have to understand... I’m a carpenter. We came across the desert on a mule.”
“Oh,” Balthazar said. “We were actually wondering why you were choosing to deliver the child in a manger.”
“We’d been discussing it, actually,” Casper added. “Melchior thought it was supposed to be symbolic.”
“Not really,” Joseph said.
“But what about these shepherds? Surely anyone with so many slaves and goats--”
“They’re not ours,” Joseph explained. “We came here with nothing but ourselves, a dying goat, and a small pouch of coins.”
“Huh,” Casper said. “So. By the way, where should we put this stuff down?”
It was almost dawn before the wise men departed, and most of the shepherds started to pick up after them. As the last rays of the heavenly star above began to fade from view, Mary turned to Joseph and said, “Before the shepherds all leave, why don’t you see if any of them want some myrrh or frankincense.”
And so was born our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in the town of Bethlehem in the year 1ish. And henceforth was this to be known as the first Christmas, which coincidentally fell more or less on the 4000th Winter Solstice, which was also the birthday of Hercules and Dionysus and a shitload of other gods associated with the sun, death, rebirth, and all that.
So Merry Christmas, one and all, and rejoice in these glad tidings.