“…Except for icons or Renaissance paintings, and in unpopular non-canonical texts, the midwife at the Nativity is not depicted, never remembered or acknowledged, not even in a cheerful Christmas carol. Oh, there are plenty of mentions of cows and donkeys who are supposedly given the gift of speech on that night—maybe they alone talked about the midwife’s role among themselves, but no one else seems to…” From THE MIDWIFE’S TALE: A CHRISTMAS STORY.
Unlike the narrator in my story, I am not a midwife. But after years of traditional Nativity stories and crèches and cards and carols, the emphasis has always been that Mary, Jesus’ Mother, was visited and surrounded by men—shepherds and Kings—after that miraculous birth occurred so long ago.
Where were the women during the birth?
Surely at least one woman was on the scene. Birthing children was and still is a exclusively female-oriented event in many cultures, and the midwife would have been the very first witness to Jesus’ appearance on earth.
Unless she was completely alone except for Joseph, her elderly husband to help her deliver the child, it seemed improbable that Mary would not have at least one or two women helping her with the birth.
Growing up, I used to wonder why the midwife never figured at all in any of the Nativity stories, but quickly dismissed her absence because of the prevalence of the other important male characters who were always mentioned and given the spotlight.
Recently, I received a postcard with a replica of an icon from Eastern Europe. I grew up with icons because of my Ukrainian heritage—and so was familiar with the depictions.
But this time, I did a double-take and felt compelled to seriously examine the postcard’s imagery.
On it were the familiar representations of several scenes of the Nativity with a large figure of Mary in the center, and near her, the swaddled baby Jesus in a manger.
Around the central figure of Mary are other smaller scenes indicating several related events: an angel appearing to the shepherds, the Three Kings with their gifts, and of Joseph being tempted by a shepherd (who is really the devil). All very typical in Eastern iconography depicting the Nativity.
But there was another scene painted on the icon. It was a replica of a woman—not Mary—about to wash the infant Jesus in a basin of water.
I never paid attention to her presence on an icon before and I had to search for her identity and for any biblical sources about her.
Well, typically there wasn’t much at all. However, I did find an unlikely mention of a midwife in a non-canonical text (sources not condoned by traditional Christian churches) called the Gospel of James (Jesus’ brother most likely).
In it, Joseph hides Mary’s “disgrace” as he called it, by having her stay in the cave while he finds a midwife named Salome who does not believe that Mary is a virgin given her condition. That is, until Salome physically examines her.
Afterwards, a miracle of sorts occurs after Salome loses her hand, but it is later restored when holding the infant Jesus.
I didn’t care for this story at all. It’s inelegant, humiliating, and has no real feminine reality as to how women would act and interact in this type of scenario.
And so I made up my own version.
In my book, Joseph has a dream and is told to search for a midwife in the marketplace in Bethlehem. Eventually, he finds her although she is not Semitic, nor local, but rather is a migrant from one of the Slavic tribes and yes, probably from ancient Ukraine.
She enlists her helpers in the midwife mission for Mary’s delivery, dismisses Joseph who is sent away during the birth, and aides Mary to birth in the ways that child-bearing was done in those times, and all accomplished in that cave which is more historically accurate than a stable, and far more preferable as a setting for my story version.
I did however want to keep some type of miracle occurring for the midwife, but like any good fiction writer, I included one with a twist of my own.
Because my midwife was a pagan, with her own cultural rituals that she brought with her to Bethlehem from her homeland in the steppes, she had the opportunity to practice her particular skill of soothsaying and prophecy and of course she correctly predicted Jesus’ path.
But she was also given a miracle in return for helping Mary and Joseph and in that plot twist, I hoped to convey the message of universal compassion: the midwife’s sympathy towards the stranded Holy Family and eventually, Jesus’ towards the midwife.
For any writer, it’s always risky to take on a beloved story that is so ingrained in people’s lives and religions, but rather than changing the overall Nativity story, my aim was to enlarge it by one more person who was absolutely present that particular night.
THE MIDWIFE’S TALE: A CHRISTMAS STORY by Irene Zabytko is now available on amazon.com and http://www.irenezabytko.com/new-books/4594478039
Watch the book trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpl35Va8MCE
For more about THE MIDWIFE’S TALE see Stacey Garrity’s “Whispering Stories” blogpost: https://whisperingstories.com/the-writing-life-of-irene-zabytko/
Irene Zabytko is the author of the novel about Chornobyl, THE SKY UNWASHED, the short story collection, WHEN LUBA LEAVES HOME and the writing guidebook THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION.