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Why are Donkeys Always in Nativity Scenes?

A manger without an ox or a donkey would be incomplete. The two animals, together with the main characters Mary, Joseph and of course, the baby Jesus, have appeared in so many nativity scenes that we expect them to be there. But how did the ox and the donkey, which are among the oldest Christian motifs, enter the stable originally?

At Oscar’s Place in Hopland, CA, we’re proud to be known as “the donkey people” and that’s why we love sharing interesting information and great stories about donkeys, their history and the role they play in today’s society.

When do the ox and the donkey appear in depictions of the birth of Jesus?

The ox and the donkey have been an indispensable part of pictorial representations of the birth of Jesus since the time of early Christianity. In addition to the nativity figures also appear in medieval frescoes or in church windows from the 4th century onwards - before then, the Roman oppression of Christians left no chance for Christmas art or the Christian symbols such as the donkey and the ox.

However, the animals that witnessed the birth of Jesus do not appear in the Bible. In the Gospel of Luke, which tells us the story of Christmas, there is only mention of a crib stable and a manger in which the newborn baby is placed, but not animals.

What is the importance of the ox and the donkey in the stable?

Some historians believe that the ox and the donkey in the hut refer to the Old Testament. From the verse of the prophet Isaiah.

"The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master's manger; Israel has no knowledge; my people have no understanding" (Isa 1: 2-3).

This sentence means: animals know where they belong. You are smarter than you might think. Take them as an example. At that time, the ox and the donkey were very important, as they served as a livelihood and were indispensable tools for field work. The animals in the hut, the ox and the donkey, are very close to the message of the Incarnation of God. The shepherds and the three wise Kings will come later.

This interpretation is also supported by the representation on the sarcophagus of the city gate in the Church of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan (made around 380-400 AD) - also known as the 'Sarcophagus of Stilicho'. Here Jesus lies all alone in the manger, without Mary and Joseph - only flanked by an ox and a donkey. And in the apocryphal infancy gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, it says: "On the third day of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the blessed virgin came out of the cave, went into the stable, and laid her boy, whom the ox and the ass worshipped, in a manger Even the animals, ox and ass, among whom he lay, worshipped him unceasingly".

Furthermore, a verse from the book of the Habakuk prophets refers to the two animals in the stable. The Greek translation reads: "Lord, I heard your news and was in awe, Lord, I looked at your works and was impressed. You are acknowledged in the midst of two living creatures ..." (Habakuk 3: 2). According to the Christian conception, the donkey at the manger represents the pagans, the ox the Jews.

As Christians around the world start thinking about setting up nativity scenes for Christmas, the pope has pointed out that the ox and the donkey – regular fixtures around the manger – are latter-day inventions nowhere to be seen in the gospels.

Benedict puts the record straight in his third book on the life of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, which was released on Tuesday and looks destined for the bestseller lists with an initial print run of one million.

Having dealt with Christ's adult life and death in his first two books, the pope tackles the birth of the son of God and puts paid to some myths surrounding the newly born Jesus's spell in a stable with Mary and Joseph.

"In the gospels there is no mention of animals," the pope states. He says references to the ox and the donkey in other parts of the Bible may have inspired Christians to include them in their nativity scenes.

The Vatican itself has included animals in the nativity scenes it sets up each year in St Peter's Square, and Benedict concedes that the tradition is here to stay. "No nativity scene will give up its ox and donkey," he says.

Showing his scholarly approach to the Bible, Benedict also analyzes the moment angels descended to tell shepherds the son of God was lying in a manger nearby. In a blow to fans of the carol Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Benedict writes: "According to the evangelist, the angels 'said' this. But Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song, in which all the glory of the great joy that they proclaim becomes tangibly present."

One aspect of the nativity story that Benedict states is absolutely true is the virgin birth of Jesus. Catholics, he argues, should see this, as well as Jesus's resurrection as "cornerstones of faith".

"If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God," he writes. "But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ he has ushered in a new creation."

About Oscars Place Adoption Center & Animal Sanctuary

Oscar’s Place | The Selway Family Foundation is a 501c3 non-profit organization committed to the rescue, rehabilitation and rehoming of donkeys abused or abandoned. When an animal suffers because humans are unkind, Oscar’s Place steps in. While we’re just a team of everyday individuals, we deeply care for and are committed to providing a safe haven for farm animals in need.

Sources: Wikipedia and

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1 Comment

Karen Ruby Allman
Karen Ruby Allman
Jan 04, 2022

All I can say is there is certainly going to be a place in heaven for you. To take on a task like this is a huge responsibility I certainly have all the respect in the world for you and your cause. Keep sending emails to me and whenever I can I will donate as much as possible. My husband is a disabled Vietnam Veteran and we are retired and on a fixed income but will certainly give what we can afford. Thank you for all that you do for these beautiful creatures

Karen Allman

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