Jane Ann Nebel loved the Nativity scene beneath her parents’ Christmas tree.
As a young child in St. Albans, Queens, she often played with the ceramic figurines — cradling the Baby Jesus in her palm, carefully setting him in the manger, and then helping the humble shepherds and the stately Magi to move forward, step by step, to worship the newborn King.
Jane carried those happy childhood memories with her into adulthood, through her career as a puppeteer and artist who, alongside acclaimed puppeteer Jim Henson, helped to found “The Muppets.” Jane worked with Henson for several years on The Muppets and other projects, eventually marrying him.
As their family grew, Jane quit full-time puppeteering in the early ’60s and devoted herself to raising their five children; then, later in life, her children grown, Jane experienced a renewed interest in her Catholic faith. She remembered the manger scene that had been such a strong influence in her childhood. She wondered: Could she create one more marionette show, one in which the familiar figures from the crèche would come to life, bringing the story of Jesus’ birth to the world?
Jane Henson talked with others about the project, including her daughters Cheryl and Heather, president of the Jim Henson Foundation and the founder of her own puppet company, respectively. She also talked with Sean Keohane, director of the Pinocchio Marionette Theater in Orlando, who had studied in the 1980s at the British American Drama Academy.
Then, in early 2008, Keohane received a midnight call from Heather Henson. Jane had been thinking about this “manger” thing she wanted to do. Could he meet her at her Manhattan studio space and help to flesh out a plan for the show?
Bringing Christ’s Birth Into Focus
The Register talked with Keohane about that meeting and about the unique puppet show that resulted.
“Jane was humble and shy, but she knew what she wanted,” Keohane reported. “She recounted the entire Nativity story. Beyond that, she talked about Mary’s parents and about how Joseph was changed through the course of the narrative.” Keohane sat for hours with Jane Henson, drinking tea and talking about what they would do in the show. Then, as the production got closer to development, Henson would call together a larger group of friends and invite their input; but always, Keohane reported, she was “the mother hen sitting in the center.” She sculpted the puppet heads herself and then worked with the creative team at the Jim Henson Studio in New York to finish the puppets.
Keohane, with Henson’s direction, wrote the script — and he acknowledges that he took creative license with the biblical narrative.
“For instance,” he said, “Herod is an evil villain, but he’s almost comical. And the character who undergoes the greatest transformation is Joseph. At the beginning, Joseph feels a little abused; but by the end, he’s the protector.”
Keohane noted that while nothing is completely made up, there are what he called “expanded scenes” in which he interpreted a character’s reaction.
One challenge the writers faced was to convert the biblical narrative of the birth of Christ into a drama suitable for the stage. Henson didn’t want the show to be specifically “Catholic” or even religious; rather, she hoped that it would be a cultural presentation that would appeal to a wide audience. Nonetheless, Keohane described the finished product as a great tool of evangelization. “You are loved,” it teaches, he shared. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
The Nativity Story was Jane Henson’s final work. She died in 2013 (her husband Jim died in 1990), but today the Nativity show is funded by Cheryl Henson and the Jane Henson Foundation.
A special performance of Jane Henson’s Nativity Story was featured in a CBS Christmas Eve special in 2013. Hosted by Regis Philbin and filmed in New York’s St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, “A New York Christmas to Remember” was a joint production of The Church of St. Paul the Apostle, Paulist Productions and Scott Mirkin Productions.
Other Appearances of the Nativity in the Hensons’ Productions
Jane Henson’s Nativity Story is the latest rendition of the birth of Christ in the Hensons’ work; but as Cheryl Henson explained to the Register, it is not the only example. “There was a lovely puppet Nativity made for the ‘John Denver and The Muppets’ Christmas special,” Cheryl said.
“... It is a beautiful sequence with the look of a classic crèche. Muppet Family Christmas has some nice messages. Jim and Jane loved Christmas and celebrated the spirit of Christmas in many productions.”
Sean Keohane added, “To me, there is a great feeling of warmth in the TV specials The Muppets made for Christmas, a sense of togetherness, even if it was a connection to those who were actually absent — like Emmet and Ma Otter remembering Emmet’s late father — and still being influenced by the memory of that loved one who was gone and yet still so present in their lives.”
“What comes through so strongly,” he added, “whether in a Jim Henson special like that, or the Jane Henson Nativity Story play now, is the importance of love, even sacrificial love, of friends and family, in making the world a better place. Somehow people are able to identify with a puppet and accept those good stories, highlighting what we would call ‘the real meaning of Christmas’ from a puppet character in a way they might not from another human. I prefer to say mystical rather than magical here, but it’s a real effect, a touch of the divine speaking through an instrument.” The same could be said of the Henson-led beloved retelling of the Charles Dickens classic, The Muppet Christmas Carol.
The Play’s Charitable Outreach
Sean Keohane has been proud to present Jane Henson’s Nativity Story to the public; but while the performance is great holiday entertainment for the whole family, this unique theatrical piece has a second purpose: It’s offered for free to organizations that have a financial need.
Last year, Keohane reported, the puppet show helped to raise money for St. James Cathedral School in Orlando to install an elevator on campus for students who need it, including a second-grader with special needs who sings in the choir.
Another performance at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Winter Garden, Florida, was intended to support a Christian family of refugees from the Middle East who had been displaced by ISIS.
Pastor Tom Rutherford explained to the Register that the proceeds were instead put to another good use: “When Sean and his puppets presented their program at Church of the Messiah,” he said, “... we had put together a refugee team with the intention of sponsoring and helping a Christian family displaced by ISIS. That was when ISIS had run rampant through Iraq and Syria and were killing, kidnapping and driving away Christians. But, as it turned out, no such family ever came to the Orlando area, so that plan never came to fruition. The funds raised by that performance have stayed in a designated refugee account ever since. We are about to utilize them, however, and have reactivated the refugee team to help a Haitian family who are in the United States getting long-term medical care that is not available in Haiti for a daughter. The family are not refugees from ISIS or religious or political persecution; but they are here due to a crisis beyond their control and are dealing with their situation with very limited resources, which is very similar to the plight of many refugees.”
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Jane Henson’s Nativity Story was performed at the Cathedral of St. Andrew, the official seat of the Diocese of Grand Rapids. Paulist Father John Geaney, former rector of the cathedral, called the production “a marvelous way to help people understand what the Nativity is all about.”
Eulene Freeland, director of communications for the Cathedral of St. Andrew, recalled that they had pulled the production together fairly quickly and didn’t have the time she would have liked to promote the event. Nonetheless, she told the Register, the cathedral was half full. “It was beautiful! And, afterward, they allowed the kids to come up and showed them the puppets and how they worked. The kids loved that!”
Kathy Schiffer writes from Seneca, South Carolina.
Jane Henson’s Nativity Story was presented in Florida on Dec. 15 in furtherance of the studios’ mission to bring quality family entertainment to West Orange County in Central Florida. To learn more or to inquire about bringing the production to your church or school, visit the website. In December 2019, the show will travel to England, where it will be presented in the late-19th-century Gothic Revival-style Union Chapel, a Congregationalist church also renowned as one of the best concert venues in London, just up the street from Islington’s storied Little Angel puppet theater. The performance will be accompanied by choirs and the chapel’s famous pipe organ, played by Claire Singer. The Nativity Story will be staged to benefit Union Chapel’s Margins Project, serving the city’s homeless and in-crisis population.