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Midwife calling: For Christ is born of Mary

23 December 2022

Bridget Supple imagines Jesus’s birth through the eyes of a midwife called out to attend to his mother

© Art Gallery of Ontario

St Anne with the Infant Jesus (1645-50) by Georges de la Tour

St Anne with the Infant Jesus (1645-50) by Georges de la Tour

BEFORE I take Jesus to clean and wrap him, I ready a cloth to rest the baby on right next to Mary, so she can help without moving. I place salt close to her, along with some rosemary I have in my bag, a cloth to wash, and another cloth to dry him. I put the swaddling cloth within reach. Finally, I place a drink and a piece of my sweet fruit-bread next to Mary for her to eat, now that her hands are free.

“Is it OK if I take him now, Mary?” I ask. Some people will just take the baby from the mother, forgetting that while, yes, this ritual needs to be performed, you are separating a duo that have been joined for three seasons, since the moment the baby came into existence. This should be a sacred moment. Gently she lifts him up to me, kissing his head as he is passed up.

It’s my first cuddle with him, as he’s been in his mother’s arms since he was born, enjoying her closeness, smell, and love. While I’ve been watching him closely at first, then every few minutes as he adjusted to life outside of the womb, this is my first proper meeting with him. I tenderly pick him up and cradle his tiny little naked body close to mine.

With the first separation from his mother his tiny arms fly up, and I think he might cry, but I shush and cradle him, jigging him to soothe him, and whisper welcome prayers into his ear. He settles quickly, and watches me with big dark eyes as I lay him down on the cloth.

First, I use a wet cloth to wash him down, removing any blood and fluid left on him. Mary holds a reassuring hand on his chest, then head, and hushes him. I dry him off with the second, small piece of cloth, going carefully round the cord which is still white and long and tied.

So often, this is a moment of big gestures and ritual, but tonight, here in the dark, sitting in the dirt, the world seems to hush as I offer Mary the open pouch of salt and she takes a small pinch of grains.

I leave the open pouch close, as I reach for a small jug of oil. Jesus lies with his curled-up legs drawn up as if still in utero, but he is amazingly calm. I start the prayer of blessing.

I am joined in the quiet prayer by Mary. It is a song of blessing and thanks to God for this baby; a petition to love and protect them both, cleanse them and be with them, a heartfelt request that they may always be held in the hand of God.


MARY ever-so-carefully circles the salt and oil around his chest, watching as this tiny rib cage rises and falls with each breath. I begin on his legs, from the feet to the middle, bringing the salt mixture up, always up. Head, arms, and then our hands swoop underneath him ensuring he is rubbed all over. He is so small and our hands seem so huge.

It does not take long, and once done we start the swaddle, wrapping him, round his head and down his body, right to his feet, the Lion of Judah displayed at the front, marking him as a child of the House of David. He is held tight, just as he would have been in the womb, and, while he will not wear these for long, as his lower part must be free for expulsions, this is an important ritual to have been performed.

It is done. He has been cleaned and claimed as a wanted child, purified with salt and wrapped with love. A look of relief and contentment sweeps over Mary, but I notice that she moves as if in some discomfort, and my attention returns to her needs.

Now it is time for the cleaning and wrapping of Mary. Joseph has returned; so I ask him to take the baby while I attend to her. He takes baby Jesus in his arms, standing, gently rocking him. His tall frame makes the baby look so incredibly small as he sways, strokes, and coos to the tiny life in his arms.

He moves closer to the door, lovingly holding his newborn son, so I can wash down Mary’s body with some privacy. I can hear him talking softly to baby Jesus in the stillness of the night.


I HAVE some cleaned balls of smoothed wool for this washing in my bag, but first I will use water and rags to remove the blood and sweat, then wash and purify her with the wool, water, and herbs, finally rubbing on some fragranced oils to cleanse and restore.

This is a tradition observed since our days in the red tents, and is, in my mind, a most beautiful thing. It is a precious way of honouring the body after it has just brought forth life. A woman is so open after birth. It’s a holy, vulnerable time, she’s often worn out and as weak as a kitten.

She must be treated with gentleness and care. I kneel down next to Mary with the bowl of water for washing, and a small square of cloth to clean her. I have rose, chamomile, mint, and nettle, each in their small goatskin pouch in my kit. Each plays a different part: rose for cleansing, mint for invigorating, chamomile flowers for soothing. There are so many uses for the plants found all around these hills.

I mix rose into the water and start from her face, neck, and shoulders working down her body, cleansing the sweat and dust that have mingled on her skin. By the time I reach her feet, her skin has dried, and I start again from the head. This time, as a restorative after the cleanse, I massage her body with olive oil infused with basil, especially around the womb. It has worked so hard and now must be treated with care.

It must be oiled and touched to make sure it is contracting back and sitting where it should be. When I am finished, I will bind her belly. I’ll wrap a length of cloth tightly around her hips and belly, bringing balance and support to the table of her body, preventing problems in her womb and back later.

Baby Jesus, still full and content from the first feed, is settled well in his father’s arms. After the journey to get here, Mary needs the time and care. We don’t speak much as I clean her and begin to massage her body. I have learnt the value of silent care when women are in this stage. They have just stepped through the fire of birth, they have opened up to bring life, and are now open, raw, and otherworldly. This is not a time for idle chat.

Sometimes, a woman will want to talk, the energy of birth still flooding out. Mostly at this point, they need to be allowed to sit in this space, like a warrior after a battle, exhausted, reflective, and appreciating that they have survived to win such a prize.


I GO to my bag and find a tightly rolled-up weave, to wrap her belly and hold her womb tight. Mary, seeing what I am getting, speaks up, “Salome, I have one in my bag. It was made for me by my cousin Elizabeth. She has just had her first child — in her older years,” she smiles.

I go to her rolled mat and find a tightly wrapped weave. It is beautifully made and a delicate pale blue, most likely made from a dye from the ­flowering alkanet plant. “Oh, this is beautiful — clearly made with much love for you,” I remark as I hold it up and run the soft wool through my fingers. I kneel back down beside her, gently unravelling it as I reach around her and wrap it round her still swollen belly.

Round and tight, not painfully tight, but supportive, holding the womb space together as her body recovers from the huge loss it has just experienced. For that is how a womb always feels to me just after a birth. This space that has grown and nurtured, fed, warmed, and cared for a baby is suddenly left bereft, empty and bleeding. No wonder we must care for new mothers. For a short while, they are wide open and raw.

I reach round and wrap, round and wrap, round and wrap, starting low on her belly and rising up over her now empty bump. As I do, I quietly pray for this woman, this baby. I give thanks for the baby’s safe arrival, for sparing the mother, for once again being allowed to witness such holiness, for that is how it feels to me. This is the moment of connection to the hand that made us all. It is a holy act.


This is an edited extract from The Birthkeeper of Bethlehem: A midwife’s tale by
Bridget Supple. It is available from the publisher, Womancraft Publishing, 978-1910559826; womancraftpublishing.com

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