And so it came to pass a long, long, very long time ago — maybe 100 or even 300 years ago, according to the experts in first grade at Holy Family Regional Catholic School — Jesus was born in a stable with some cows and a sheep …
"And a dog by him when he was born," said Seth Shannon, one of the students from Mary Kay Mahan's classroom who agreed to tell the story of Christmas.
"There was just a cow and a donkey when baby Jesus was born," corrected classmate Tom Matteson. "And the cow and the donkey were curious about what it was and looked over and saw the little baby and stayed there." ;
Several students from the class gathered in the school's cafeteria one recent morning to explain the basics of Christmas. The elementary school, founded as a mission school for African-American children in the 1950s, was, in 1963, the first school in Alabama to be integrated when white students petitioned for admission. Intentionally limited to about 200 students for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, and with a strong religious education program, it's an ideal place to get the facts of the season.
The students were asked to explain the story as though the person they were addressing had never heard of Christmas or Jesus. They were to pretend their listener was from some far-away place. After some discussion, they decided this must be some place in Africa.
"Like Arizona," stated William Davis, as his classmates nodded their heads, agreeing this sounded very foreign.
The season revolves around the birth of this baby, which was something people had longed for, they explained.
"There were people waiting by a window for years and years. And God promised to send a savior. And he sent us Jesus," Seth said.
Then they elaborate.
"Christmas is special because Jesus was born on that day, and he was really special because he was God's child. And Mary's child," said Emily Morgan.
"And Joseph was the foster father of Jesus," Seth said.
But like many theologians, they debate the nature of the Jesus.
"Baby Jesus? He's going to be God," Anthony Gordillo said.
"Not God," corrected Azaria Malone. "He is the child of God."
God, or son of God, either one, Jesus' coming brings joy, they agree.
"God is coming, and all the animals are happy," Anthony said.
"Jesus is a very special person to some people," Seth said. "Because he was the one who made the animals and people. He made all kinds of stuff, and some people are happy about that."
"And he saves us from our sins," Tom said, explaining that sins are when you do something very bad.
"Like when you say God's name in vain, something like that," Emily said.
Jesus saves us, but there's more, they said.
"The Bible tells us that Jesus loves us," Seth said.
"And that's important because he loves us more than anything in the world," Tom said.
"Like today? We were driving from my house, and I saw a dead bunny rabbit," Seth said. "And that makes God sad because he made that, and it was a special thing."
So into this world of dead bunnies and curious cows, came Jesus. But he was born in an unusual place for a human baby.
"He was born in a stable," said Jairus Rice.
"In Israel, I think," Seth said. "It was a magical stable."
And Jesus was born in this magical stable instead of a house because there wasn't any room left for them anywhere else, said Hannah Szcepanski.
And shepherds came, too.
"To gather round," Anthony said softly.
"And angels," Hannah said.
"God sent angels, and angels send messages to people," Anthony said.
"They're our guardian angels," Jairus said.
We humans can't see these angels, "Because they're in heaven, and we're not in heaven yet," William said.
"But they fly down," Hannah said.
After the birth, the baby had more visitors, they say.
"Then guys with camels, saviors, came to see the Baby Jesus," Jairus said.
"So they could visit and see what Baby Jesus looked like," William said.
"And to give him presents," Anthony said.
"Bread and wine," Carson said.
"And a leaf," Hannah said.
"I only know, like, one gift," Tom said. "They gave him gold."
"The Three Wise Men brought gifts to Jesus, so that's why Santa Claus brings us gifts and toys," Emily said. "And Santa Claus comes every Christmas — comes down your chimney, or your air vent, if you don't have one."
"Santa Claus is St. Nicholas, I think," Seth said.
But Christmas isn't just about what gifts they're hoping for, which include a telephone for Emily, who lost her other one, a portable game system for Thomas, and a bicycle for Seth. The children are part of a school-wide campaign to raise money to buy gifts and to donate food for hungry families through the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry.
"We already have, um, $183," Seth said. "That's going to buy two bikes. Or nine. Or it will be enough money to buy a house."
And the children bring food donations for the pantry year round.
"For the poor," Emily said.
"So they don't have to look for food," Thomas said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Campbell writes for The Huntsville Times in Huntsville, Ala.)