Christmas nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
Christmas cards, TV and movies — even the nativity at the church on the corner contain beautifully re-told, well-crafted, sensitive depictions of a Christmas a long time ago that may have looked a whole lot different from what we think.
When was Christ born, for example? Popular concession says December 25th. Many children think of poor Mary, Joseph and a little donkey trudging through the snow. While donkeys tail flaps in the bitter wind — finely reaching the shelter of the walls of Bethlehem with the bright light of the Christmas star shining down on them like a police search light. (Snow in Bethlehem would be like snow in Los Angeles… so no snow. No search light either — which could fit in at Los Angeles.)
Jesus Christ’s birth as depicted by New Testament prophets Matthew and Luke contains precious little information about the most important man ever born and the facts of his birth.
Some believe that April 6th is a better date. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (LDS) leader and scholar James E. Talmage believed that the date of Christ’s birth coincided deliberately with the date the church was established.
Several Presidents of the LDS Church, including Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball, have reaffirmed April 6 as the anniversary of the birth. However LDS leaders have always encouraged LDS faithful and other Christians to observe the 25th in remembrance of Christ’s life and example.
Jeffrey R Chadwick, Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center Professor of Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies, believes that Mormons may want to look at this again. His math, which takes into account the death of Herod, taxation customs of the time and other variables leads him to a different number. In his paper, “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ,” Chadwick states:
“…As far as (LDS) General Authority statements are concerned, the only three sources offering data that may be scrutinized are Talmage’s Jesus the Christ, (J. Reuben Clark Jr) Clark’s Our Lord of the Gospels, and (Bruce R.) McConkie’s The Mortal Messiah. And of these three, the latter two prefer a different time frame than Talmage’s proposal of April 6 in 1 B.C..”
Regardless of when, there seems to be no doubt as to the where:
Bethlehem was the place by all accounts. Did Mary ride the 70 miles on a donkey? It’s more than probable, but a donkey is not mentioned in the original biblical versions.
Regardless of mode of transportation, the couple may have arrived at Bethlehem early and settled in. It makes sense that Joseph would have made plans to not be on the road at such a delicate time. Luke’s account (Luke 2:6) simply states that “while they were there (Bethlehem) the days were accomplished that she should be delivered”.
There is no reason to believe that Joseph tried to stay in an Inn. Inns were not generally located in smaller towns, and nowhere in any of the accounts does it say that Joseph knocked on doors to find a room. Nor is there an innkeeper mentioned. As Joseph was of the house of David, and Bethlehem was “the city of David” the couple may have made previous arrangements to stay with relatives.
The bible does not mention a stable or a barn in association with the birth of Christ. Nor does it mention a cave – a frequent literary alternate venue. The accounts state that He was laid in a manger because there was no room for Him in what translates in Greek to be “the guest chamber” (or lodging place, living quarters, or inn). The word “kataluma” is used one other time in the New Testament to define a “guest chamber.” (Mark 14, 14-15: Luke 22:11) A separate, distinct word, “pandocheion” was later used in Luke 10:34. It refers to an actual inn.
According to some archaeologists, Jesus could have been born within the quarters of a relative’s home on the lower level usually reserved for a common living space, food preparation and presentation, with a section reserved for the housing of animals. Mary may have given birth to the Savior on the first level of a very crowded home.
It would not have been unusual for some animals to be kept in a space on the first floor. There would have been a wall to separate the entrance of the home, a living space, and the area at the back where a few animals were kept in the evening. If, in this instance, the house was overflowing with family, this area would have been cleaned out and stocked for guests. A manger would not have been out of place.
Shepherds did see the child lying in a manger as was told to them by an angel of the lord. They made haste and found the child exactly as was made known to them. They probably left the care of the flock to the newest Shepard, or the loser of the draw, and they definitely left the flock outside the city gate — so no sheep at the manger. (Luke 2:8-18)
Did the angels sing? That is uncertain. They certainly praised, saying “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
There may have been a count of three wise men, but that number is not mentioned. It is not indicated that they were kings at all, but that they were Magi – plural. Magi commonly refers to priests, wise men, or advisers to rulers. These would have been educated men who would have had studied the stars (ore on that later).
There are three specific gifts listed (and any child will tell you what they were) but no mention of the countries these wise men had traveled from, or what geographic areas they represented.
“We three kings of orient are?” Possibly. They were from the east. Prussia is the safest bet.
It is mentioned that the Magi visited the Christ child in a house. Whether this was the house in which he was born during the first days of the child’s birth, or another home Joseph had procured a bit later, it is not said. The child was with his mother, Mary.
How soon after the birth of the Savior was the visit from the Magi? Herod had asked the wise men visiting Jerusalem when the star they were following had appeared. (They had observed the star at its rising months before and had come to pay homage.) Once they left Jerusalem and the court of Herod, the Magi located the star again, and it lead them to the aforementioned home in which Joseph and his family resided.
It is known that after the visit of the Magi, Joseph was instructed in a dream to leave the land and go to Egypt to spare the babes life from Herod. Once Herod realized that the Magi weren’t going to help him with more information, he ordered the death of all the males born in those last two years in Bethlehem and the surrounding area – just to cover his bases. Herod obviously had reason to believe — from what the Magi had told him — that the baby could be a little older by then. (Matt 2:7)
The Bethlehem star may have been the positioning of two or more planets, a comet, or a re-occurring Nova. It could even have been something supernatural (meaning a phenomena we don’t yet understand). But the Magi saw something that they recognized – however subtle – as a sign that had been given to them. They lost sight of it for a time and then found it again as they left Jerusalem. A celestial manifestation was in the sky, and it led them to the savior.
Astronomer Hugh Ross claims that the only plausible explanation is a re-occurring Nova: “Most novae experience only a single explosion. But a tiny fraction have the capacity to undergo multiple explosions separated by months or years. This repeat occurrence seems necessary, for the Matthew text indicates that the star appeared, disappeared, and then reappeared and disappeared sometime later.”
Roman feast of Saturnalia had been established towards the end of December in expectation of the winter solstice and its passing, and days that were noticeably longer. Romans feasted and gave each other gifts — celebrations starting at mid-December and concluding at the months’ end. (Advent wreath anyone?)
Early Christians began to link their celebration of the birth of Jesus with that current pagan celebration in a time when outward celebrations could call undue attention for followers of Christ. Later (around 400 A.D.) the Christian world adopted the 25th of December as Christmas outright in order to make a holy day out of the pagan festival and replace it with one more suitable to followers of Christ.
Many holiday customs and beliefs that we generally associate with Christmas developed independently from the nativity itself. Some of our traditions have origins in pre-Christian festivities adopted into the general celebration by those who converted to Christianity.
Today, Christmas and its celebrations are worldwide. Stable animals speaking? Drummer boys? Christmas donkey in the stable? If it is good and promotes the recognition of Jesus the Christ, and the development of Christ-like attributes, it is welcome at Christmas.
And we may find that “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord…” is all we need to know.