The Times

December 17 2000

Away in a manger no crib for a bed - or Joseph for a dad

Deborah Collcutt, Consumer Affairs Correspondent
The Sunday Times

BEHOLD, the Christmas crib for the single parent is born. On sale at a department store near you is a nativity scene that rewrites the story of the son of God to meet the demands of political correctness.

A survey of nativity sets in John Lewis stores last week revealed an absence of anyone resembling Joseph, the carpenter who, according to tradition, was married to Mary, the virgin who gave birth to Jesus.

Approached by a customer bemused by this anomaly, a sales assistant at the store in Oxford Street, London, was equally baffled. "Joseph," he said, "has done a runner!"

Indeed he has and, in a "contemporary version" of the nativity story fashioned out of painted dough, Mary has been abandoned by her husband.

At first John Lewis seemed unperturbed. "We have a variety of nativity sets so people can choose what they like best," it said. Never mind the Bible, thou shalt have the version to suit thy prejudices.

The sets, for example, allow customers to choose the colour of the three wise men. Though originally described only as from the east, the three have for centuries been identified as kings from Arabia, Persia and India, and traditionally one is very dark-skinned.

"We have the whole range," said a spokesman, after being asked why there was no black king in the £22.50 set on sale. "We have sets with a black king, too. The buying office gets the best nativity sets so that people can choose what they like best."

This, however, does not stretch to including the Joseph known for 2,000 years as a humble carpenter. After further consultation about absent fathers, managers at the store decided that Joseph was in fact present in the nativity scene but that he was depicted as a shepherd.

And so it came to pass that there were two possibilities: a figure carrying a lamb and one carrying a crook.

Joseph, the company confirmed, is "not the one holding the lamb". It identified him as a figure with rosy cheeks and curly hair, in a headscarf and cloak, carrying a crook.

But didn't he look, well, decidedly like a woman? Was this the set intended for those of Sapphic inclinations? In some exasperation, the spokesman replied: "Well, what do you expect Joseph to look like?"

The confusion held some comfort for George Austin, the former archdeacon of York, who commented on the missing Joseph: "At least John Lewis clearly believes in the virgin birth."

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.