We celebrate our birthdays, well, on our birthdays. But we celebrate Jesus’ birth about three months late every year, and that’s only one of many Christmas celebratory traditions that don’t quite match up with the historical event.
Pope Julius I chose Jesus’ official birthday. His wanted to replace a pagan festival celebrated on that day with a “Christian” one. It’s likely that Jesus was really born in late September, during the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. During this feast, prescribed in Leviticus 23, the Jews were to build little booths or tabernacles to remind them of the tents the Israelites dwelt in when God rescued them out of Egypt. How fitting that Jesus was born during this joyful feast, since he came and dwelt among us temporarily in the tent of an earthly body.
The December celebration of Christmas has grown like a snowball ever since its beginning, picking up traditions and symbols as it rolls through the centuries. Exchanging gifts and merry feasting are as old as the Roman Saturnalia. Christmas trees seem to have originated in Germany in the sixteenth century, but the custom of bringing greenery into the home in midwinter is ancient. Santa Claus evolved from Sinter Klaas (Dutch for St. Nicholas, a real man). Christmas cards became popular in England in the 1800’s. The Grinch, well, never mind.
Ah, the Christmas Pageant! Here’s the real story, surely. The narrator reads from Luke. Poor Mary is nine or ten months pregnant, balancing on a donkey, and some rude innkeeper won’t let them have a room. Well…Mary might have had a little more leeway. Luke 2:6 says that “while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.” It wasn’t necessarily the night they rolled into town. They probably didn’t encounter an innkeeper—Luke doesn’t mention one—but a relative whose guest rooms were bulging with people traveling because of the feast and the census. The word translated “inn” usually meant a guest room, or living quarters. Joseph and Mary may have stayed in the stable area under the house, where the animals sheltered, and where there would have been a manger for animal feed. Oh, and where is Mary’s donkey mentioned? It’s not.
But we get it right from there on, don’t we? We do have the shepherds watching over their flocks by night, and that fits with a September birth (but not December). The angels appear to the shepherds and sing…but wait, did you know that Scripture never says that angels sing? They announce, and praise God, and proclaim and say, but never sing. (If your Bible says “sing,” you have a ‘thought for thought’ translation, not a ‘word for word’.)
Finally, the Three Kings of the Orient follow the star, and give gifts to baby Jesus in the manger. This part of the story is in Matthew, not Luke. But, they were in fact wise men, or magi, not kings. We don’t know how many there were. It’s often pegged at three, because Scripture lists three gifts. The “star” they were following—for months, probably—was most likely the Shekinah glory of God, according to Dr. Dave Reagan. That’s the same light that guided the Israelites through the desert for forty years!
Read carefully and note that the magi visited the infant King in a house. Sometime after Jesus’ birth, when most of the visitors had cleared out, there was probably room for the little family to move in to the living quarters until the baby was old enough to travel (or flee to Egypt, as it turned out).
While I’m happy to enjoy the traditions and symbols that have become associated with Jesus’ birth over the centuries, I’m glad to have more accurate details available. I must admit I smile with satisfaction when my children put the little wise men and their camels clear across the room from the stable and the manger. It will take them a while to travel all that way, you see, and by then baby Jesus will be living in the house.