We have this white-washed sort of view of the scene in the stable. Numb from watching too many school nativity plays, all we have in our heads is a scene of calm tranquility, with Mary cradling her 'meek and mild' infant, Joseph hanging about in his support-person role, and Mary smiling as animals milled about and three rich foreigners inexplicably turned up with gifts.
If Mary was like most women she'd have said, 'Oh Joseph, no, I'm so tired, who are these strangers, do we have to let them in'? But still, actual gold? Why, thank you, that'll be handy for our taxes. And sweet-smelling resins? Ooh, lovely.
Frankincense and myrrh would have helped bring welcome fragrance into a delivery suite that was probably fairly rank, given it was shared with all those sheep and cattle.
The messy reality of the birth is never mentioned, for the men who wrote the Bible cared little about the fleshy nature of primal women's business. So we can only wonder, who helped her as she laboured? Joseph? Anyone? Was it smooth-going or long and hard? Childbirth was high-risk back then. Who helped her handle the pain? Who fetched some water for cleaning up when it was all over? And was this child meek and mild or one of those roaring infants who gives his mother almost no peace?
We'll never know. But all these years later Mary is still the world's most celebrated woman. She's been painted, sculpted, crowned, flower-bedecked, bowed to and prayed to ceaselessly ever since. Here she is in one of the world's most famous windows, Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere - Our Lady of the Beautiful Glass - in Chartres Cathedral south of Paris.
It's more than 800 years old, and the inch-thick window still shines as brightly as if it was put up yesterday. Chartres Blue is such a romanticised colour that a rumour has spread that it can no longer be created by modern glassmakers. It's not exactly true. The old recipes still exist… it's just that ancient methods and terminology make them seem mysterious and hard to replicate. It's stupendous to see, though, this glowing picture of blue-robed Mary and her baby set high up in the towering stone walls.
Vast cathedrals like this can seem chilly and remote to the modern eye. It's almost impossible for us to imagine the huge, decades-long job of building them so long ago. I've been there twice and heard many stories about its wonderful history and design. My favourite is the simplest one of all - that its flagstoned floor is slightly, deliberately, sloped. Why? Because some of the cathedral's builders would have lived within the slowly growing walls during construction, using it to house their families and domestic beasts. The floor was made with a slight slope to make it easier to sluice and sweep out the daily mess created by human and animal occupation.
That small fact makes the place so much more human for me. Now the building is silent except when services and musical events are happening, but once there were stables here, filled with the sounds of animals and gossiping townsfolk and crying babies. Jesus wasn't born tucked up against the foundations of a medieval cathedral, but in other ways the 12th construction-site scene wouldn't have been too different from that other stable we remember every December 25. With a fond salute to young Mary, of course.