Christians are prone to believe things that are familiar, even if the familiar is not true. The story of Christmas is a perfect example. Like barnacles on a whale’s underbelly, the story of Christ’s birth has picked up many foreign details that aren’t part of the original story. Some of these details are innocent and rooted in tradition; others are significant aberrations to the Christmas story, making December 25 one of the most syncretistic events on the Christian calendar.
The innocent additions to Christmas are plentiful. The appearance of exactly three magi from the East isn’t in the Bible, but deduced from the three different gifts the magi brought. Maybe Joseph led Mary to Bethlehem on a donkey, but there’s no mention of a donkey anywhere in the biblical account. This tradition probably comes from a second-century Christian book known as the Infancy Gospel of James, which says that Joseph “saddled a donkey, and he set her upon it” (17:2). Maybe they did ride a donkey, but perhaps they simply walked.
Jesus born in an inn
It’s also unlikely that Jesus was born in a barn, a cave, or even an “inn.”
While Luke 2:7 says “there was no room for them at the inn,” the word for “inn” is kataluma, which can mean “inn” in the traditional sense, but most likely refers to a room in a house. The only other time Luke uses kataluma is in Luke 22:11, where it clearly means a room in a house, not a commercial inn. Luke does actually refer to an inn later in Luke 10:34 (where the Samaritan brought the half-dead man), but he uses a different word there: pandokeion (“inn”) and not kataluma.
Joseph and Mary also had familial roots in Bethlehem. Unlike 21st-century Westerners, first-century Middle Easterners knew a thing or two about hospitality. There’s no way Joseph and Mary would have gone to a commercial inn in a small town where they had many relatives. But even hospitable relatives will stand their moral ground when their own flesh and blood shows up pregnant out of wedlock. “Sorry, you can’t stay in our spare room with that lifestyle; you’ll have to sleep out in the courtyard with the animals.”
Even some traditions that are admittedly not in the Bible can be bent to our liking.
Take Santa Claus, for instance. The apparently inebriated mythical figure does have roots in a faithful Christian theologian in the story of St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and lived through the brutal Diocletian persecutions of the early fourth century. Nicholas was one of the bishops who attended the first ecumenical council at Nicea in A.D. 325, where various church leaders discussed the divine nature of Christ.
Several church leaders were given the floor to expound on their theological views, including Arius, who famously denied the deity of Christ. As Arius carried on, old St. Nick was more aggravated than jolly, squirming irritably in his seat as he listened to Arius’ heresy. Finally, Nicholas couldn’t take it. He got up from his seat, marched to the front where Arius was spouting off, reared back and socked Arius in the face. So you’d better watch out; you better not cry; the deity of Christ—you better not deny! is a more appropriate lyric for that beloved Christmas song.
The date of Christmas itself is one of the most fixed aspects of our tradition. Unfortunately, nowhere does the Bible say that Jesus was born on December 25. This, too, comes from tradition. And the tradition itself is quite complex.
By the third century following Christ’s death, different traditions arose about the date of his birth.
Some said it was May 20, while others said it was April 20 or 21. By the fourth century, two different dates became the most popular: January 6 (or 7) and December 25. While many Orthodox churches today celebrate Christmas in January, December 25 became fixed in western tradition from the fourth century on. Some think that early Christians picked December 25 to replace pagan solar festivals, which celebrated the rising of the sun on December 25.
While this tradition is quite popular, it’s more likely that December 25 was first selected because it was exactly 9 months after March 25—the day of Jesus’s crucifixion. This may seem insignificant, and maybe it is to our ears. But according to the earliest church tradition, Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb on the same calendar day that he was crucified. If he was conceived on March 25, then perhaps he was born exactly 9 months later on December 25. This tradition goes back to the third century A.D. and thus predates the later Christian concern to replace a pagan holiday with a Christian one.
In any case, whatever the original reason for December 25, it comes from tradition and not the Bible.
Depoliticizing the Christmas story
The most dangerous addition—or should we say, subtraction—to the birth narrative is the steady depoliticalization of the Christmas story in modern times.
Christmas Day celebrates cosmic warfare—collision between heaven and the forces of evil embodied in the political and religious powers of the day. The pagan priests from the East came to worship a newborn king, an emperor, who would establish an empire on earth, and King Herod took the news as any human king would: as treason.
According to Revelation 12 and 13—the long-lost retelling of the Christmas story—Satan empowered the Roman empire (Rev 12:3; 13:1-2) to kill the newborn emperor right out of the womb (Revelation 12:4-5; cf. Matthew 2:16-18). The child escaped and would grow up to become a messianic revolutionary, “one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Revelation 12:5). But instead of defeating the empire through violence, Jesus conquered the dragon (Satan) and the beast (Rome) by submitting to the death penalty and being raised from the dead to tell the tale. Against all odds, his wild-eyed disciples would participate in this cruciform narrative—birthed in Bethlehem and climaxed at Calvary—and “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6)
Christmas is the opening act of a story that ends with a crucified and risen messiah, executed for treason, who conquered the devil by being conquered, who reigns victorious because He suffered, who embraced the blind and lame, Jew and Gentile, immigrant and citizen, female and male—who bids us to come die with him.
When Christians spend the Christmas season frantically stressed by consumerist pressures, we echo the values of the empire that Jesus sought to undermine. Christmas is a season of celebration and suffering, of danger and self-denial. It’s a time to remember a newborn king who destabilized society by establishing an upside-down kingdom that confronts and subverts the powers to be.
This Christmas, we celebrate a countercultural revolution who was birthed in a feeding trough.