Dec 1 2015
There’s a lot of debate these days about Christmas when it comes to the Christian traditions. The traditional Christian Christmas says that Jesus Christ was born on Christmas day and this is the major point of the debate. Was Jesus born on Christmas day? Should Christians celebrate Christmas if he wasn’t? Should Christians celebrate Christmas anyway? I have had these arguments thrown at me by friends for years. Today, I’m going to explore these and other points and tell the Christmas story as I go. Feel free to leave your comments (at th
e bottom) if you wish.
The Traditional Christian Christmas Story
Mary was visited by an angel. The angel told her that she would give birth to the Son of God. Mary was confused by this as she was still a virgin and not married. When she became pregnant, her
betrothed, Joseph, was angry and believed that she had disgraced him. An angel visited Joseph that night and told him that the child was the Son of God and that Mary was pregnant because of the Holy Spirit’s doing, not from a man. Joseph accepted this and married Mary as soon as possible.
Roughly eight months later, the Roman’s called for a census which required the people to go to the town where the head of the family was born and be registered. Joseph was born in Bethlehem. He packed up his heavily pregnant wife, Mary, and, with her riding on a donkey, they set off from Nazareth for the arduous journey ahead.
When they finally reached Bethlehem, there was so many people already there that they could not find any rooms where they could stay. The only place that they were offered was the equivalent of what we would call a stable. There, surrounded by animals, they made beds of straw to spend the night, with hopes of finding something more suitable the next day. Then Mary went into labour and gave birth to the Son of God, Jesus. The only place suitable to put the newborn was in a manger – an eating trough for the animals.
In the nearby fields, a host of angels appeared to the shepherds and declared the birth with shouts and songs of glory to God. The shepherds, sworn to never leave their flocks, left at once to find the baby, the Son of God, the King of Kings. Their Jewish teachings told them, in a prophecy, of a Saviour who would be born. To praise the Lord and visit this miracle baby was more important than their flocks.
In the east, in another country, the magi (typically believed to be astrologers/astronomers) saw a new star in the sky. A star that had been prophesied hundreds of years before. A star that would lead them to the Son of God. They packed up and left immediately to follow the star. Their journey was long and their ‘group’ was not small enough to go unnoticed. Their passing was told to the king of the land, a man named Herod. Herod invited them to the palace so he could find out why they were there. The magi told him of the birth of a king in the region. Herod was a jealous man and immediately saw this birth as a threat to his reign. He did not show his thoughts to the visitors though, instead he asked them to send word to him once they found this
baby king so he could also visit and pay his respects.
The magi moved on and found the baby. They gave gifts of Gold, Incense and Myrrh. That night, they were visited by an angel who warned them to not tell Herod but to instead return home via a different route.
Herod waited and eventually set out a decree that all children under the age of two and under in the town of Bethlehem were to be killed. Joseph was visited again (in a dream) by an angel and told of Herod’s plans. He questioned the angel about what to do and was told to go to Egypt where they would be safe. He immediately woke his family and left.
So that’s the story as we know it, from the Bible. We have more traditional things that we have added over the years or have been ‘set’ by Biblical scholars or councils. for example, the call the magi the wise men or kings and that there were three of them. Also, the most important, the date of December 25th as being the birthday of Jesus.
It was, to my knowledge, around the time of the Council of Nicea, 325AD, that December 25th was chosen. There are many theories as to why it was that day. It is said that it was chosen to replace the Roman tradition of Saturnalia, a celebration of the end of Winter and beginning of new life. The theory says that Emperor Constantine chose it in 336AD and that Pope Julius I declared it to be the day that Jesus birth would be celebrated. I want you to note that it was declared to be the day it was celebrated, not the day it happened! Just like the Queen’s birthday – we celebrate that on a day that it didn’t happen. Just like our own birthdays, we often celebrate on the weekend after so that we can party on a non work night. To me this is the most important of the arguments to dispel. It’s not even worth arguing over in my opinion. It is not the date of His birth but the day we celebrate it.
There are other things that people will tell you are wrong with the nativity image (seen in cards or displays with statues). Things like – it wasn’t a stable, the three wise men weren’t there, the star wasn’t there on the birth etc. And they are right again! None of that is true.
The animals weren’t kept in stables, but either in the house or in a cave. Most houses back then had two floors, the lower was where the animals were kept and tools etc, and the upper floor was the house proper – bedrooms, kitchen etc.
The Wise Men
The wise men came later. Remember in the story (above) that Herod wanted to kill all the children two years and under? That would suggest that the wise men (or magi) came when Jesus was about two. It is thought that they came from Babylon and they knew to look for the star from the prophesies of Daniel who had been living in Babylon when he made them. They also knew the timetable. One of Daniel’s prophecies said it would be 50 generations from King David that the Saviour would be born. With this in mind, they knew when to look for the star (also prophesied) and upon finding it, knew to follow it. I’ve been told it would have taken them over a year to travel the distance from Babylon to Bethlehem (I’m not 100% sure about that) as they would probably have done it on camels and had assistants and other things to take for such a long journey. They had to cross at least one desert so that could cause delays too. We also don’t know how many of them there were. Because of the three presents, it is thought that there were three of them but there could have been more or even less.
We can look back on lunar calenders and make suggestions about which comet they followed depending on which time of year and what year you think the birth was. We don’t really know which one or if it was a comet or meteor or some other object in the sky. What we can work out though is that it wasn’t there on the night of the birth just from the wise men’s journey. They followed the star and they didn’t get there until a year or so later.
Why Celebrate Christmas in December then? Or at all?
Well, we don’t know the date of the birth of Jesus so we can’t celebrate on the actual day. There are many suggestions as to when it was. I even tried to work it out many years ago and came up with two dates. I don’t remember them now but I think it was either April or September. But that’s not important. As I said earlier, it’s the date we celebrate the birth of Jesus. It’s the traditional date, the date chosen over a thousand years ago. Why that date was chosen is no longer important. Here is what I have learned is important about having it on December 25th every year. We (as Christians) celebrate it to recognise the birth of our Lord and Saviour. We teach our kids and our friends how important the man was and is to us. We invite friends and family to come to church with us and it is the one time of year that they seriously think about it. A lot of people only go to church twice a year, Christmas and Easter. It’s a big deal! More people come to church on Christmas than any other time of year so it is our best chance of sharing with them why Jesus was born. Why He is our saviour and why we still celebrate His birth which was over two thousand years ago. It is our best chance to share with non-Christians the life of Jesus.
What about the non-Christian aspects of Christmas?
So now you know why we have a traditional Christian Christmas. The friends that argue against it also ask why I have a decorated tree and house and why give presents. These traditions are seen as coming from the pagan celebration of Saturnalia. I never knew that until they told me. I’ve never burned the tree afterwards to honour some other god so I don’t understand how they think I’m practising a pagan act. I see the tree as a place to put the presents. The presents themselves are fun. I like giving them and seeing the wonder on my kids faces as they unwrap them. And it is a part of the tradition now too so why stop it? I’m not worshipping some other god or teaching my kids to be greedy. I’m giving them something fun and also teaching them about my God. The decorations, tree, presents, carols etc are all part of the package and they make it a way to open up a dialogue about what Christmas is all about. Not just with the family but also with friends and strangers.
A Challenge (or two) for you!
First of all, don’t forget what Christmas is about. Don’t miss the opportunity to share with others what it’s about too. Try and get some friends or family to come to your church with you. And if one of them wants to argue about any of the above, you now have some answers that you might not have thought about before.
Have a safe and merry Christmas!