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Margaret Bateson-Hill
Margaret Bateson-HillDecember 23, 2021
Leah turns the animals’ feeding trough into a cradle. Illustration by Karin Littlewood. Image supplied.Leah turns the animals’ feeding trough into a cradle. Illustration by Karin Littlewood. Image supplied.

I cannot remember a time when I did not know the nativity story. I loved feeling that I was a part of it, too: During Advent, my nighttime prayers as a child would take place in front of our Christmas crib (minus the baby Jesus). As one of four girls, I always hoped it would be my turn that year to place the baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas morning. I was an angel in my first nativity play at school; the next year I was cast as Mary, a role that came complete with a lullaby solo.

Fast track to my adult self, an author of children’s books and a professional storyteller. More often than not, I am now out sharing stories in schools, libraries, museums—even royal palaces. I have told stories in my local playground in London and as far away as Moscow and Beijing. The children I meet are from diverse cultures, traditions and beliefs. Yet, the birth of a baby is a timeless and universally applicable reality; everyone has their own birth story to tell, of where and how and who was there.

The birth of a baby is a timeless and universally applicable reality; everyone has their own birth story to tell, of where and how and who was there.

When my editor asked if I would write the story of our savior’s birth, I had my deep personal faith tradition to draw on. I also had Ignatian spirituality. As providence would have it, I belonged to a parish that was run by the Jesuits, and so I had experienced the contemplative practice of praying through your imagination as St. Ignatius recommends in The Spiritual Exercises.

Leah is mesmerized by the star she sees shining over her father’s inn. Illustration by Karin Littlewood. Image supplied.
Leah is mesmerized by the star she sees shining over her father’s inn. Illustration by Karin Littlewood. Image supplied.

I wanted children to hear the story of the nativity through the eyes of a child, not the experience of an adult. There are many excellent picture books about Jesus’ birth, from simple retellings to sumptuous gift books, but many lack a real and emotional connection to the lives of the children who read and encounter this story every year. And so the character of Leah began to take flight in my imagination. In Leah’s Star, I wanted my young readers to see the first Christmas through her eyes.

I imagined that Leah, the daughter of a Bethlehem innkeeper, is returning from the market with extra supplies, and is captivated by the star she sees shining over her father’s inn. She is so distracted by the brilliance of the night sky that she falls over the donkey carrying Mary and Joseph. The innkeeper, seeing that Mary is about to give birth, invites the couple to stay in his stable. Leah wants to help.

I wanted children to hear the story of the nativity through the eyes of a child, not the experience of an adult.

While the scene is meant to bring gentle humor, I wanted to show these chance meetings and accidents in life have significance and importance if we are open to them. There is wonder in the smallest ordinary things of our lives; they are often transformative in miraculous ways.

Mary paces around the stable in labor, supported by Joseph and Susannah. Illustration by Karin Littlewood. Image supplied.
Mary paces around the stable in labor, supported by Joseph and Susannah. Illustration by Karin Littlewood. Image supplied.

I imagined the story from Leah’s perspective, thinking not only about what this little girl saw and heard, but trying to feel her emotions and hear her responses to what she saw and felt. She questions the shepherds, asking how Jesus can be a king if he is born in her stable, and she notices how the voices of the rich travelers—the magi—who come to the inn make her think of faraway places.

The story needed to be true to real life. The skin tones, clothes and surroundings, illustrated by Karin Littlewood, reflect the Middle Eastern heritage of the story. And Mary is properly pregnant; she paces around the stable in labor, supported by Joseph and Susanna, the local midwife.

Leah questions the shepherds, asking how Jesus can be a king if he is born in her stable.

Though the story happened 2,000 years ago, I wanted to include experiences and emotions children would recognize today: the desire to help, the feeling of being tired, the awe inspired by new life. Leah fetches her blanket to keep the baby warm and turns the animals’ feeding trough into a cradle. Her preparations complete, Leah lies down in the hay and falls asleep, only to be woken by the baby crying. She is so in awe at the wonder of this new baby that it makes her want to cry too.

Throughout my telling of Jesus’ birth story, I also feed in little clues for readers who have a deeper knowledge of scripture. Leah’s conversation with Mary, for example, is a clear echo of the Magnificat: “Mary smiled. ‘God often chooses little people to do great things for him.’”

I did not want to sugarcoat the story either; the narrative ends with the flight to Egypt not the arrival of the magi. The nativity witnesses everyday situations that we adults see on our streets and on our screens: homelessness, poverty, refugees forced to flee because of violence and war. But our children also experience these things. They, too, are greatly affected by them.

The nativity witnesses everyday situations that we adults see on our streets and on our screens.... But our children also experience these things.

Whenever I read Leah’s Star to a group of children, I ask them if they know their own birth stories. Were they born at home or in a hospital? In this country or another? Do they still have any special toys or gifts from when they were born, or photos of themselves as babies? And, of course, I show them a photo of myself as a baby, and share with them that I am a mother too and have three children of my own.

The baby Jesus clutches Leah's finger. Illustrator: Karin Littlewood. Image supplied.
The baby Jesus clutches Leah's finger. Illustration by Karin Littlewood. Image supplied.

I suppose more than anything, I wanted children to enter into Leah’s world. And through her to experience Jesus’ world through their own senses, thoughts and emotions. To imagine themselves as Leah—especially as we see her in the final spread, with Jesus clutching her finger so tightly that she realizes it is not she who is holding the baby, but rather the baby is holding her.

Along the way, I also learned that it is not only children who benefit from entering the story of our savior’s birth in new ways. Story is the place where the teller and the listener meet. It is an active relationship, each dependent on the other to make the story live. To imagine Leah in the stable, I had to visit that lowly place myself. Why not have a go yourself? Try storytelling to a group of children—no book or pictures, just your own words to bring the story to life. Children are perceptive; watch what they react to. Add actions. Sing! Include some carols along the way. Or add a call and response, like a “A star shone...for the baby in a stable.” Get the children to tell you the story.

As a first-time grandmother this year, I will once again have the joy of sharing the nativity story with a young child. But that is another story.

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