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Eva Witesman: Why I Love the "Raucous Reverence" of Our Family's Nativity Reenactment

by | Dec. 12, 2019

Every Christmas, my family reads the story of Jesus’ birth from the second chapter of Luke.

Before we start, I bring a laundry basket full of random stuff to the family circle and plop it down where everyone can reach it. The basket is filled with bathrobes and towels, scraps of wood, stuffed animals, blankets, tin foil and construction paper—whatever seems like it might be useful. While someone in the family reads, everyone else reenacts the events recorded in the scriptures. People take roles one by one as they are read from the scriptures, and grab props as needed from the basket of impromptu supplies—or from the toy shelf near the fireplace—or from anywhere else in the room. Every role is filled somehow—from angels and sheep to the Holy Family.

As you might expect with children ranging in age from 3 to 16 (plus their spirited aunts, uncles, and grandparents), this event has the potential to get more than a little unruly. Accustomed to the reverence during sacrament meetings and primary, my first inclination is always to quiet things down a bit. To hush the laughter, reign things in, and enforce some minimal expectation of poise.

But I don’t. Not ever.

The birth of our Savior was the holiest of miracles, and awe-inspiring in every sense of the term. It should, unquestionably, be reverenced. And yet, every year, I let the shenanigans continue. And they are shenanigans. By the end of the scripture reading, my entire family is laughing. Not just polite chapel-pew chuckles, but full-on belly laughs.

It all started one year when we hosted the family Christmas party at my house, and the whole family came. We gathered in the living room and I opened the scriptures and started to read—much like my parents and grandparents had always done, for generations. A few words in, my mom suggested we act out the story as it unfolded (we had never done this before, as far as I know). Looking at my restless little crew, I knew she was right: If we didn’t do something to get the children involved, we’d all be focused on toddler power struggles rather than the scriptures.

Of course, we were completely unprepared for a production of the nativity. We had no props, no costumes, no scripts, no plan. Just us and the scriptures, sitting in my not-big-enough-for-all-of-us living room, giving Mom’s idea a go.

I started again. The production went something like this:

Me: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”

The rest of the family: “Quick! Who is going to be Caesar Augustus? You? Ok! Decree that all the world should be taxed!”

Small child: “All the world should be attacked!”

The rest of the family: “No, taxed. Taxed. Like, they need to come and pay money. Tell the people they need to come pay you money.”

Small child: “Oh, ok. Come pay me money.”

Someone: “Uh, shouldn’t we all go pay taxes?”

Someone else: “I’ve had enough of taxes.”

Everyone else, pulling yellow Legos from the toy shelf to render to Caesar: “Here’s our money!”

Small child: “Ooooh. Look at all my money!”

Me: “And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.”

Everyone else: *Look at each other and shrug*

Me: “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”

At this point, there is a flurry of activity. First, we have to assign roles to everyone. In addition to Mary and Joseph, there is a serious (but urgent) semi-doctrinal conversation about whether the theatrical form of the Christ child should be a stuffed animal, a toy doll, or a member of the family (who would accompany Mary and Joseph as a spirit before being born).

Next, we realize we need costumes and more props.

I make several trips to various rooms of the house, gathering anything I can find that might be useful. I bring them back and people start rummaging through the pile.

Mary and Joseph get adorned in bathrobes (sometimes silky, sometimes plush), and Mary drapes a towel over her head. Because, you know, historical accuracy.

Next, someone volunteers my brother to be the donkey. This is especially fun because he’s a really fit guy, so he does pushups with Mary on his back and twirls her around in all kinds of acrobatics on their way to Bethlehem.

Me: “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

This next part happens, as listed in the scriptures, in the following order:: First, Mary gives birth (which is always entertaining as you gain insight into a child’s idea of childbearing). Then Mary and Joseph go back in time and try to find room in the inn (which requires more quick casting choices). Finally, they settle down for a fast-forwarded version of the previously dramatized labor and delivery.

Before long, the grandparents are crawling around on the ground baa-ing like sheep, and my sister ends up coaching one of my kids in the angel’s lines:

Me: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

My sister (whispering): “And the angel”

My child: “And the angel”

Me: “Said unto them”

My sister (whispering): “Said unto them”

My child: “Said unto them”

Me: “Fear not”

My sister (whispering): “Fear not”

My child: “Fear not”

And so on.

This is followed shortly thereafter by the entire family singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” in different keys, to different tunes, and at different speeds, generally with my dad (a bona fide rock musician) trying to rescue the musical number with a soulful solo.

So—not exactly the kind of reverence I learned in church on Sundays. And yet, though it might seem to be the opposite to the kind of head-bowed, arms folded sort of reverence we usually recognize, I am certain that it is not irreverent. How can irreverence be accompanied by the Spirit?

Laughter fills my eyes with tears, and then gratitude fills my eyes with tears, and then the Spirit fills my eyes with tears and my heart longs to continue my eternal family.

Even while I am laughing, I feel truth. I feel it deeply. As deeply as the happiness that causes my lungs to heave, my smile to widen, and my belly to ache.

I call this raucous reverence.

Through raucous reverence, I feel a special sense of communion. I feel joy. And when we have finished our family reenactment, it feels perfectly natural to bear testimony of both the Savior and all that He taught—about loving God and loving one another and wanting to be together forever. My children know more about the Savior when we have finished, not less. They feel closer to Him, rather than distanced from Him. Rather than feeling judged and restrained, they feel celebrated as children in the way I believe Mary and Joseph celebrated the young Jesus, and the way Jesus celebrated children during His ministry.

I believe that there are many kinds of reverence, and that the still, small voice can be heard in the midst of any of them. In addition to raucous reverence, I’ve experienced quiet reverence (like I experience in the temple), the reverence of awe (like when I witness a miracle), energetic reverence (when I am so moved by spiritual truth that I just have to dance or shout “Amen!”), the reverence of kinship (the spirit of Elijah) and the reverence of generosity (the warm glow that comes with serving others).

I love raucous reverence and my family’s righteous Christmas shenanigans. I also love that other types of reverence are manifest in our traditions, like making cookies for on-duty first responders (the reverence of generosity), holding grand family councils (the reverence of kinship), watching the First Presidency Christmas Devotional (quiet reverence) and many more. By balancing many types of reverent worship at Christmastime, I think we learn better how to draw closer to Christ in all kinds of circumstances throughout the year.

Eva witesman bio photo

Eva Witesman

After receiving her bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah in 2002, Eva Witesman wanted to continue on to graduate school but was torn between her desires to further her education and to focus on motherhood. Following a prompting, she continued her education and received her MPA from Indiana University in 2004. After a hiatus—during which her husband, Owen, interned in Finland—she continued her education at IU and received her PhD in public management and policy analysis.


Witesman, an expert in evidence-based innovation and strategy, became a full-time professor of public management at the BYU Marriott School of Business in 2009. She teaches graduate classes and coordinates student-driven projects like GoodMeasure - program assessment and evaluation for dozens of local nonprofits, and Creating the Virtuous Organization - a series of classes, ongoing qualitative research, and community conversations based on how companies can be good, not just do good. Eva and Owen Witesman have four children, who, she says, are “individually and collectively the central joy of my life.”

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