Everybody knows what the nativity scene looks like. There were shepherds and their sheep on the left, bundled up on the cold winter night. On the right were three sharply dressed men — the three kings — who had come to worship Jesus. With Mary and Joseph in the middle is a strangely silent and wise-looking baby — who appears to have a 25-watt bulb inside his head to give Him an unearthly glow.
This is shared cultural mythology about Christmas. We’ve picked it up from movies, nativity scenes and Hallmark cards, but it’s not in the Bible. We fall prey to Christmas myths just as easily as we fall prey to political and economic ones. How many of these myths have you fallen for over the years?
Jesus was born on Dec. 25. Well, no. We don’t know the date. They didn’t have calendars hanging on walls back then and there’s no reason to believe they celebrated (or even noticed) birthdays. From the fact that shepherds were in the fields, according to the Bible, we know it wasn’t in December. I’ve read speculation ranging from spring all the way through September.
So why do we celebrate Jesus’ birth on Dec. 25? Simply because that’s when the Catholic church arbitrarily decided to celebrate it. There was a traditional non-religious holiday on that date anyway, which fell just after the winter solstice around Dec. 21. Since people were accustomed to a winter celebration then, the church gave them Christmas to take its place. That tradition continued to be followed by Protestant churches even after they broke away from Rome. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the date, but it has no biblical significance. You may even use this factoid to absolve yourself when you send people their gifts a few days (or even months) late.
There were three kings who came to worship Jesus at His birth. We’re told that wise men from the East came to find Jesus, but we don’t know how many there were. They also weren’t kings. Instead, it’s considered most likely that they were astrologers instead. Finally, they weren’t there at the birth. Jesus might have been several years old by the time they showed up and visited the family — in a house, according to the book of Matthew. It does seem sort of a shame, though. I suspect the incense they brought would have been a much more pleasant smell than that which emanated from Jesus’ trough-mates.
Joseph tried to get a room at an inn, but there were no rooms available. As far as I can tell, they didn’t even have anything like the Holiday Inn back then. Although an innkeeper plays a prominent role in some of our Christmas pageants, none is mentioned in the Bible. Instead, it’s more likely that Jesus was born in the home of one of Joseph’s relatives. Afterwards, He was placed into a manger — which could have been in a cave or something else — because all the rooms of the house were already filled. It was a humble bed, to be certain, but at least a little more respectable than those goofy bounce-n-play chairs we stick kids in nowadays. He was the Son of God, for heaven’s sake. Can you imagine Jesus in one of those things from Babies-R-Us?
As reported in the song, “Away in the Manger,” we know that Jesus didn’t cry. It’s a beautiful Christmas song, but the part of the second verse that says, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes,” is pure fabrication and bad theology. An important point of Christian theology is that Jesus was fully human — as well as fully God — and there’s no reason to think He was anything except a normal, crying baby. Perhaps the hymn-writer on the scene at the time just couldn’t make out Jesus’ cries because “the cattle were lowing” a bit too loudly.
When people say Xmas, they’re being disrespectful by taking Christ out of Christmas. Actually, X has a long history — in the church — as a symbol for Jesus. The first two letters of the word Christ are the Greek letters chi (X) and rho (P). These Greek letters, superimposed upon each other, have been used by the church for years as Jesus’ monogram. It’s used in Xmas, as well as in Xian, Xmas and Xianity. So this isn’t a plot by atheists or secular humanists (or whoever) to “X Christ out of Christmas.” We manage to take Christ out of Christmas in plenty of other ways, though. Maybe we ought to get hung up on those issues instead.
So there are a few of the common myths. If you’d like to read the original text to see how it differs from the myths you have about Christmas, take a look at the second chapter of the book of Luke, for example. If you haven’t read the story lately, you’ll find that it’s not much like the cartoon characterization that popular culture has turned it into.
What else do you assume about the Gospel story that also turns out not to be true? I’ll bet it’s more than you think.
Note: Instead of trying to document each point, I’ll just give you links for further reading if you’d like to pursue sources. There’s a lot of good material out there about myths surrounding these issues, but I’d suggest trying here, here and here first, although not every source is going to agree on every point.