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4 Myths About Christmas

 

Jesus Was Born in a Barn.

Ah, the annual nativity scene! Churches from Seattle to Schenectady will recreate the beloved Christmas tableau. Mary and Joseph will be encased by stable walls, shepherds on bended knee with perhaps a lamb or two milling around, and the Baby Jesus nestled in a wooden manger. Only problem is, it’s probably not accurate.

We think because there was no room in the inn, Joseph and Mary wandered around until they found a stable or, some say, a cave. However, they may have stayed in the “inn,” after all — or at least, a certain section of it. The word mentioned in Luke 2:7 was not an ancient version of La Quinta. It is the same word employed in Luke 22:11, which is translated as “guesnativity-4-939784-mt-chamber” or “guest room.” With his ancestral home in Bethlehem, Joseph was probably seeking shelter at the home of a relative, but the place was already packed when he and Mary arrived. In those days, families slept on the second floor and animals were brought into the main floor at night to stay warm and keep rustlers away. It was in this space that Christ was likely born and laid in a manger. Because wood was not a common building material back then, the manger was probably a stone basin at one end of the room. 

There Were Three Wise Men.

Not necessarily. Three gifts are mentioned in Matthew 2:11, but the number of wise men is not specified. There could have been only two carrying gold, incense and myrrh among them. Or there could have been dozens, each carrying a number of the gifts. No one really knows. It does seem reasonable that the Magi would have traveled in force. The journey from the “East” (probably modern-day Iran) to Israel was around 1000 miles. These wise men would not have been very wise if they traveled in measly numbers across that great and treacherous expanse. They likely had a retinue of guards and servants with them.

HarkThe Christmas Angels Sang.

We belt out the familiar carol every year: “Hark, the herald angels sing! Glory to the newborn King!” But does the biblical account say that the angels actually sang? Luke’s Gospel states that one angel made the nativity announcement, followed by a host of angels praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest” (Lk 2:9-14).  Praise in those days means what it does today: to lavish approval or admiration on a person. The angels may have shouted their praise, for all we know. Is it possible they rolled out a hymn? Sure. We read in Revelation 15 that seven angels held harps of gold while they sang. But the Christmas account does not unequivocally say that the angelic host was a choir.

Christmas was invented to turn pagans to Christianity.

This one is repeated ad infinitum. It goes like this: the ancient Romans celebrated several December holidays during their long history, most notably Saturnalia and the Birth of the Unconquered Sun. Thus, as the reasoning goes, the Catholic Church enshrined Christmas on December 25 to appropriate these pagan winter festivals.

However, it is not crystal-clear that the church did this at all. In fact, there is some scholarly speculation that it was the other way around: that the faltering solar cult was trying to overshadow a nativity date that already had some significance to Christians. It wasn’t until the 12th century that the theory of the church trying to convert sun-worshipping pagans was offhandedly mentioned in a manuscript by a Syrian monk. It took another 600 years for a Protestant German theologian to speculate that Christmas was a paganized holiday because of its placement near the solar festival.

Certain pagan symbols eventually made their way into our holiday elebrations — such as mistletoe, yule logs and Christmas trees–but it is not hard fact that the church “invented” the holiday to turn the ancients from paganism.

Nativity photo by Alex Bruda via stockxchng

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