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 December 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 December 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 appeared 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.
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.