Debunking Christmas Myths

Exposing tardy Wise Men, superbabies and other seasonal inaccuracies.

Christmas. It’s all about the good times: family and friends,
candlelight services, stockings, mistletoe, rampant misinformation. Few
holidays are more tangled up in folktales, urban legends and outright
unbiblical ideas than the one celebrating our Savior’s birth.

Not
that we talk about it all that much. Disputing the time-honored verses
of Christmas carols or exposing the errors of the children’s living
nativity scene is a good way to get a Yule log to the head. It’s
practically Scroogetastic. Nevertheless, here are a few things you may
not have known about your favorite Christian holiday.

Jesus wasn’t born on Dec. 25.

According to biblical scholars, it’s unlikely that the Christ child
arrived on the day we celebrate Christmas—or even during the winter
season. For one thing, we’re told of shepherds “keeping watch over
their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). Decembers in Bethlehem are cold and
regularly drop below freezing once it gets dark, which means most
shepherds only “kept watch” in the field from April to October. In the
winter, they sheltered their flocks and stayed inside.

And that census decreed by Caesar Augustus? It required travel, and
no self-respecting governing authority would ever schedule such a major
undertaking during the winter months—when bad weather, muddy roads and
angry citizens would foul things up. Nope, these usually took place in
September or October, after the harvest season.

Celebrating Christ’s birth on Dec. 25 was popularized in the
fourth century as a way to steal the limelight from the winter solstice
and its link to pagan feasts celebrating the Roman sun god and the
Persian god Mithras. Most scholars think Jesus was born toward the end
of September. And for those of you keeping score at home, it was
probably the year 6 B.C., not 0 A.D.

Three Wise Men didn't appear at Christ’s birth.

These guys are fixtures of the nativity scene. They show up at the
manger accompanied by camels, and are usually dressed all glittery and
stuff because they were kings. Christian tradition has even named them:
Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Funny, then, how none of this is in the
Bible.

Matthew 2 tells us about the “wise men from the east.” Following
the star and looking for the King of the Jews, they make it to
Jerusalem, where they have a run-in with King Herod. Next stop is
Bethlehem. There, they find Jesus—whom Matthew describes as a “young
child,” not a baby—with his mother in a house. Yes, a house. Not a
stable. No mention of a manger.

No indication there were three of them, either. That’s just an
assumption we make because Matthew 2:11 details the three gifts of
gold, frankincense and myrhh. But there could have been a dozen of
these guys, for all we know. Nothing about camels or flowing capes or
sparkly crowns. Nothing to indicate they were kings. In fact, most
scholars figure they were astrologers. And since the passage specifies
them meeting the “young child” in a house, many believe the Wise Men
didn’t deliver the gifts immediately after the birth. It could have
been a couple of years later.

So pretty much everything we think we know about the Wise Men comes
from sources other than the Bible. Like Christmas carols. Speaking of
which …

The second verse of “Away in a Manger” is a crock.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes/ But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes…

The traditional second verse of this favorite carol isn’t original
to the song, which first appeared as a poem (containing what are now
the first and third stanzas) in a Lutheran Sunday School book in 1885.
Verse two was added in the early 1900s by Methodist minister John T.
McFarland for a children’s program.

It implies that the baby Jesus didn’t cry when the cows, apparently
peeved at the unorthodox use of valuable manger space, woke him up with
noisy moos. Yet a fairly important precept of Christianity is that
Christ was fully human—and not some blissful, preternaturally calm
superbaby. This means the little Lord Jesus acted like an infant. He
spit up. He peed. He left a few, um, deposits in his swaddling clothes.

He cried like a baby.

People who call it “Xmas” are taking the Christ out of Christmas.

Lots of Christians start feeling like martyrs when Christmas gets
abbreviated, believing this is just another way for modern, secular
society to dis our faith. Not exactly. The first letter in the Greek
word for “Christ” is chi. And in the Roman alphabet, chi is represented by this symbol: X. So guess what? Xmas is an entirely justifiable replacement for Christmas,
and it goes back a long, long way. People who use it aren’t demeaning
Christ. Instead, they’re (consciously or not) appropriating a usage
that’s nearly as old as the faith itself. We Xians shouldn’t get so
upset about it.

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So this holiday season, when someone invites you to attend their
church’s Christmas program, feel free to point out the errors of their
wise men and angels and the maudlin carols in the background.

Or, perhaps not, Ebenezer. Don’t be a jerk.

Just remember: like many of the tightly held traditions of our
faith, not all of them are quite as biblical as we think. Merry Xmas!

This article originally appeared in issue 17 of RELEVANT.

Top Comments

90,396

Katie D commented…

I would just like to correct the common argument that the shepherds would not have been in the fields with their sheep in the middle of winter. For the most part, that is true. But Bethlehem is where the temple flock was kept. The lambs that were raised specifically for the pupose of temple sacrifices and the shepherds who tended to these sheep were outdoors with them year-round. These lambs were to be kept spotless and blemish free and so they were under constant watch to make sure they were not harmed, damaged or blemished.

And it is highly significant that Jesus was born in a birthing stall where these sacrificial lambs were born, and wrapped in the same swaddling bands that these lambs were wrapped in to keep them blemish free and acceptable for sacrifice. If Christ was born to be our Paschal lamb, how could it be any other way? Nothing about the timing and circumstance of Christ's birth is insignificant and there is such a richness of understanding to be gained when we begin to ask why. Why a manger? Because Jesus was Heaven's perfect lamb. Is it so hard to believe that Jesus, the light of world, might have come into the world on what is actually the darkest (longest) night of the year in the northern hemisphere? The symbolism is rich. With God, everything means something. We may not know the exact date Jesus was born until we get to heaven, but you can rest assured that it won't have been a random date devoid of meaning.

And let's remember that God created trees, not the pagans. If anyone can claim ownership, surely it's the Creator! Even when all else has withered or gone to sleep, the evergreen lives on. Just because the pagans misinterpret the message that all of creation relays, doesn't mean we can't reclaim it. After all, that is what the birth of Christ was all about. Reclaiming that which was lost...

Merry Christmas one and all.

90,396

mpoweredbyGod commented…

In Romans 12:2a Paul urges, Dont copy the behavior and
customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing
the way you think. I ask, Why is it that Christianity is so accepting of
being watered down? We allowpagancustoms of this
world to infiltrate our religious holy-days, but it okay there are bigger fish
to fry. Well how do these fish get bigger? They are allowed to grown.
Remember Jesus was in contention with thePharisees for letting go of
the commands of God and embracing the traditions of men (Mark 7:8,13; Matt
15:1-6). It was the Pharisees that said Jesus would do more harm
than good because they wanted to hold on to their traditions of men. What
harm is there in embracing santurnlia or a Coca-Cola Santa Clause? The
Bible tells us,"we wrestle not against
flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers
of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in highplaces. (Eph. 6:12)." if we allow these spirits into our
Churches what make you think they won't make themselves at home? Hey don't ask
meAsk the woman who was stampeded at Walmart?I realize
this isn't a popular position. Hey, when were the disciples into being
popular? All I'm saying is this, you can't water something down and expect it
to have the same value.

64 Comments

senoy

165

senoy commented…

Our sermon on Sunday was about God fully become human and how God crapped in his diaper (Well, probably not a diaper, but you get the idea.) and relating to an actual occurence involving blood, placenta, a freaking Joseph, a screaming baby all surrounded by animal manure and on a dirt floor. It was about connecting relationally to a God that suffered as we suffered. Good message.

jonathan Keck

124

jonathan Keck commented…

Great and thoughtful article. We so often fill this holiday with images and feeling of nostalgia but one should ponder the role and source of these traditions. We should not be isolationists, and abandon all of these traditions, but many of them do indeed stem from pagan holidays and traditions. I can't help but wonder if we are worshiping demons and other "gods" when we devote ourselves to trees, lights, and Santa Clause. Should a movement emerge rejecting this "Christmas" and a return to the Christ Mass take place?

Josh Ortiz

1

Josh Ortiz commented…

Great article. I think what we can take away from this that when an opportunity arises to correct the historical inaccuracies of many Christmas traditions, the real purpose of the opportunity is bring the birth of Christ out of the realm of fairy tale into reality.

90,396

Guest commented…

Great article and all, but what is up with the "Three Wise Men didn't appeared at Christs birth"? :| My written English is not very good but I'm pretty sure "didn't appeared" is... yeah.

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