Little Known Facts about Christmas Traditions

I thought I would take a break from blogging for the holidays. However, I managed to get this put together. It’s shorter than previous posts, and I didn’t get everything in here I wanted to. Just a little bit of background about our Christian traditions.

Did You Know?

Jesus was not really born on December 25

The Gospel of Luke says,

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

(Luk 2:8-12 NRS)

You are probably familiar with this story of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, to some shepherds. For trying to figure out what time of year Jesus was born, the key phrase is that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night. I have heard from modern shepherds who say this would place it between late February and mid-April, when they had to stay up to assist the ewes giving birth.

Emerson White Hours's depiction of the annunciation to the shepherds
The angels announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-15). Painting ca. 1485-90,

So why do we celebrate on December 25th, you ask?

In the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine wanted to make Jesus’ birthday a holiday, no one knew exactly when it was. Devotees of a Persian deity named Mithras, who was also popular at the time, claimed his birthday was on December 25th, probably to coincide with the winter solstice. Constantine figured since no one knows when Jesus was born, why not make it the same day? He believed combining the two celebrations would help unite the people.

Now you may be wondering, why didn’t anyone record the date of his birth if he was going to be such an important person? From what I’ve seen, when and where a great man was born was not necessarily important in the ancient world. Do we know the birthdays of Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, Solomon, or any of the prophets? And if you follow the trajectory of preaching about Jesus in the first century, no one seemed to think his birth was important. The focus of their message was on Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Ancient Christian confession

They didn’t care much about his birth, at least not at first. The less they knew about his natural origins, the better (Heb 7:3; Jn 1:1-3). Great religious figures should have some mystery surrounding them.

It was only in later years, maybe around the 70’s and after, that people began seriously wanting to know where and when he was born. The issue of where he was born became more pressing, because scholars insisted the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem (Mat 2:4-6). How was Jesus of Nazareth born in Bethlehem?

Luke investigated (Luk 1:1-4) and found there was a census where Joseph had to return with a pregnant Mary to the place of his birth, which just happened to be … Bethlehem! So we’re good on that. Matthew also included a “birth narrative” that placed his Nativity in Bethlehem. I put birth narrative in quotes because …

… Jesus Was Probably Not a Baby When the Magi Arrived

Matthew gives us the narrative of the Magi who came from the east to pay homage to the one “born king of the Jews” (2:2). They saw a star that told them this had happened. Since they were looking for a newborn king, the palace of Herod seemed the natural place to look. They didn’t know, however, just how jealously Herod guarded his power.

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

(Mat 2:7 NRS)

He would make an infamous order based on that information. Herod told the magi he would have been born in Bethlehem, according to the chief priests and scribes (2:4-6). He sent them on their way and asked them to pass along to let him know where the child was, so that he too could come and worship him. Yeah, right.

cave painting of the magi
Hard to make out but this is the earliest artistic rendering of the magi discovered so far, believed to be mid-3rd century.

Sorry to Mess with Your Nativity Scene, but …

When the magi find Jesus, he is referred to as a “child,” not a baby (2:11). An angel appeared to them in a dream and warned them not to return to Herod, so they went home without informing the reigning king. Herod responds with shocking cruelty. He orders his soldiers to kill every male child two years old or younger. Granted, Herod was known to be ruthless to anyone who could threaten his position. He even had two of his sons killed when he suspected they were not willing to wait for him to die of natural causes. So even though we have no other record of this event, it is certainly consistent with Herod’s character to do this.

But why kill all the males under two years old? If he was a newborn baby, he would probably have said any male child one year old or younger. That would give you enough margin for error to get him. But by the time they are two years old, they are usually walking. You can tell that’s not a newborn baby. And remember, Matthew told us Herod asked the wise men “the exact time when the star appeared.” That is probably why he said two years or younger.

The conclusion some have drawn from this is the shepherds visited the holy family the night of Jesus’ birth, but the magi arrived some time later. This is recognized in some traditions that celebrate January 6 as Epiphany or Dia de los Reyes (“Day of the Kings”). The belief is that the magi (called “kings” by some) arrived twelve days after his birth. But Matthew’s account says it could have been as many as two years.

The Powers that Be

The shepherds and the magi saw Jesus’ birth as a cause of celebrating and worshipping God for giving the long-awaited Messiah to the world. Herod saw Jesus’ birth as a threat to his power and position. The powers that be would be even more threatened when he became an adult and revealed himself as the Messiah. His kingdom was not of this world, but it changed the world.

He was not like the kings of this world, who secure their power through violence, oppression, and intimidation. He was the Messiah because he came as the prince of peace, and of the increase of his kingdom and his peace there would be no end. The shepherds and the magi, representing the lowly and the elites, both received the news with rejoicing. The ruling king of the Jews, on the other hand, saw this news as a threat to the power and position he had worked so hard to maintain.

The power structures of the world were turned upside down, good news for those living under violence and oppression. Bad news for the oppressors. Herod is not unique. This is how the powers that be have always reacted when they see their power threatened. Not so with Jesus. He taught his disciples greatness in his kingdom does not come through power, wealth, and military power. If you want to be great in his kingdom, you must be the servant of everyone.

Truly he taught us to love one another,

His law is love, and his gospel is peace.

The chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

“O Holy Night”

It seems our world today is still ruled by Herods, even where we once thought we were safe from them. Still, the voices of the angels ring through the ages,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

(Luk 2:14 KJV)

Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus. Amen.