Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Exposing the myths of Christmas: An “Oh Ho Ho Ho Holy Night” makeover?

Yes, as a child I believed in Santa Claus, even though I grew up in a thoroughly Bible-believing home.

Gasp!

I don’t remember exactly when I realized Santa wasn’t real. But there was no trauma and I can still enjoy the fun of including jolly Kris Kringle in my holiday observance. Miracle on 34th Street is one of my favorite movies (the original in black and white, of course).

Is that wrong of me? Depends on your point of view.

Every year as the holiday season nears, articles begin appearing heralding the “truth” about Christmas.

Some are slanted to rob the season of the Reason we, who are Christians, celebrate and contemplate these holy days.

Others work hard to separate the chaff of “false” traditions from the wheat of reported biblical facts.

The truth is that details regarding the first Christmas are pretty sparse in the Bible.

The primary passages generally include slightly more than two dozen verses from the first two books of both Matthew and Luke.

It’s from these passages that Linus quotes in A Charlie Brown Christmas and serve as the outline for most church pageants.

Of course, there are myriad other passages throughout Scripture, especially in Isaiah 7 and 9, that point to Christ. Several make up the lyrics of George Frideric Handel’s magnificent oratorio, Messiah, a favorite seasonal choral piece.

Yet this scant information fuels a significant and lavish time of holiday reflection and cheer.

Known knowns: things we know we know

What we know, focusing specifically on the traditional elements of the Nativity scene, based solely on the passages referenced, are these few, yet essential facts:
  • Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant (Luke 1:27).
  • This information was conveyed to Mary by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:26).
  • The child was conceived via divine fiat (Luke 1:35).
  • He was declared, by the angel Gabriel, to be Jesus, the Son of God (Luke 1:30-32).
  • Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant and planned to divorce her quietly (Matthew 1:18-19).
  • However, at some point an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, explained the circumstances, and instructed him to not divorce Mary (Matthew 1:10-23).
  • Joseph did exactly as the angel of the Lord had instructed (Matthew 1:24-25).
  • Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem as part of a census (Luke 2:1-5).
  • Due to limited lodging options, they were bedded in a place where there was a manger (Luke 2:6-7).
  • Mary gave birth to Jesus and placed him in the manger (Luke 2:6-7).
  • Somewhere near Bethlehem, one unnamed angel followed by a host of angels, appeared to a group of shepherds (Luke 2:8-9).
  • The shepherds were told about Jesus, that He would be found in Bethlehem, in a manger (Luke 2:10-14).
  • The shepherds went into Bethlehem, found the holy family, saw Jesus in the manger, told everyone about the angels, then returned to their shepherding duties, rejoicing the entire time (Luke 2:11-20).
  • After Jesus was born in Bethlehem about two years later, an unspecified number of “wise men from the East” came to Jerusalem, approached king Herod, and inquired about the “king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:1-2).
  • Herod, not happy about this, determined to learn more from his own scholars (Matthew 2:3-6).
  • Herod then told the wise men to visit Bethlehem, find Jesus, and report back to him (Matthew 2:2-8).
  • The wise men (aka Magi), navigating by a star (or was it a comet?), found the holy family and rejoiced at their discovery (Matthew 2:9-10).
  • After entering the house of the holy family, they presented an unspecified number of gifts which included gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).
  • Later, the wise men were warned via a dream to not report to Herod, so returned to “their own country” by a different route (Matthew 2:12).

The end.

Do you feel like some things are missing? Maybe out of synch?

Based solely on the primary passages from Matthew and Luke, these are the essential facts reported in the Bible about that first Christmas.

Note also that the timeline of events isn’t completely clear.

Known unknowns: things we know we don’t know

From these short passages, a few extra-biblical assumptions have grown up over the years. Some of these have been influenced by modern cultural experiences.

Many neglect to account for the very different practices and places of Jesus’ day, projecting their modern life experience onto that of the holy family.

Many of these assumed elements show up in Christmas pageants, crèches, and carols:

  • In bleak midwinter: While many dream of a “white Christmas,” believing this was the weather when Jesus was born, this assumes several things that Scripture doesn’t address. Much of our thinking about cold snowy Christmases comes from imaginative poetry and carols. We don’t know the specific date of Jesus’ birth. Assigning a wintry December 25th was somewhat arbitrary and even contentious. If Jesus was born in December in Judea, odds are, due to the typically inclement weather that time of year, shepherds would probably not have been out in the fields. It’s also unlikely that a census would have been taken requiring people to travel in bad weather. Some, based on a variety of biblical clues, believe the birth happened during the late summer or fall. We just don’t know for sure.

  • We three kings of Orient are: While this makes for a grand image, there is no indication that these “wise men from the East” were kings, no indication what country they were from, and no indication there were three. They also are never referenced by individual names. While three gifts were named (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) these were not the only gifts given. Some speculate that there could have been a large caravan of people. Rather than kings, some believe, based on Scriptural clues, that these Magi were astrologers or astronomers. And while they came from some place east of Bethlehem, the term “Orient,” which is not used in the Bible, can encompass a large, non-specific area. Oh, and they didn’t show up in the story until about two years after the whole babe-in-a-manger thing.

  • Angels we have heard on high: Angels are an adorable part of every Christmas pageant. And they are usually present in Nativity scenes, live and painted. But, we don’t know if any angels were present at the actual birthplace. While the Bible reports that, on the night of the birth of Jesus, angels appeared to the shepherds “out in the fields,” there is no indication of any angels hanging around the specific spot of the birth. Maybe they were there. Maybe they weren’t. We just don’t know.

  • No room, no room, for Jesus: Oh how we love to hate that grumpy innkeeper who refused Mary and Joseph shelter in their time of need. The thing is, there is no mention of any innkeeper in the story. In fact, there’s no clear reference to an inn or even a stable. The word translated as “inn” in some Bible versions, can mean “lodging place, eating room, dining room, guest chamber” among other things. It’s assumed Mary and Joseph stayed where animals were kept because of the “manger” which is a feeding trough. Based on cultural studies of the times, their lodging place may have been a cave or a lower room in the house where animals were kept at night. We don’t know for certain.

  • Ox and ass before Him bow: Even if the holy family were put up in a stable (whether free-standing with rafters, part of a house, or in a cave) we don’t know that any animals were present. The visiting shepherds may have brought a sheep with them, but why would they? There is even doubt that Mary and Joseph traveled with a donkey. And it just seems wrong that whoever put them up would force them to lodge with animals. As far as animals kneeling or talking, again, this is nothing more than imaginative myth that makes for fun carols. All we know for certain is that the place where God became incarnate was very basic and humble. Even without animals, the place probably wasn’t clean or sanitary. But, even in this, I’m speculating.

These are just a few of the images that have been wrongly attributed to the Christmas story.

But the add-ons don’t stop there.

Unknown unknowns: things we don't know we don't know

Outside of these embellishments to the Nativity, a lot of imagery has accumulated around our celebration of Christmas. Generally this involves attributing spiritual qualities to symbols and traditions.

For some, holly represents the thorny crown placed on the head of Jesus at his crucifixion. The Christmas tree, an evergreen, evokes the hope of everlasting life.

Giving gifts is said to reflect the free gift of grace available to those who believe. Decorating the tree can represent putting on our new life in Christ.

Each verse of the interminable Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” was said by some to be fraught with religious meaning. For example, three French hens stood for the trinity, and the six geese a-laying were representative of the six days of creation, and so on.

Even food gets into the act! Traditional figgy pudding is said to consist of 13 ingredients, representing Jesus and his 12 disciples. This is only one of the meanings attached to this carol-extolled suet-laden dessert.

For some, the shape of candy canes evokes the shepherd’s crook, while the colors speak to the blood and purity of Jesus.

There are even those who claim fruitcake symbolizes the fruit of the Spirit. While some fruitcakes are soaked in spirits, I would argue its reputation doesn’t support such a positive representation.

Beyond symbolism, there are stories and carols, birthed from evergreen imaginations, that are not factual but meant to personalize the Christmas experience, translating it into a contemporary context.

The little drummer boy was not a real person, but the story of the song does deliver a legitimate message of worship, selflessness, and humility. It’s not unlike the parables Jesus used as teaching tools.

Knowing what we know and don’t, what difference does it make?

I am a firm believer in “rightly dividing the word.” We should never attribute biblical weight or authority to what are merely cultural practices. We need to know what is and isn’t in the Bible.

But cultural practices cannot automatically be considered completely useless chaff and tossed aside. And I am not at all ready to stand aside and let culture strip the season down to nothing but crass commercialism.

God created us in His image and imbues us with fertile imaginations. Using this marvelous attribute to envisage “what it might have been like” at the birth of Christ, filling in the gaps in the biblical narrative, can be inspiring, insightful, and fun.

This is how we make the story of the Bible our own, allowing us to better internalize its vital message.

Further, infusing spiritual meaning into gifting, Christmas trees, mistletoe, and the like can be a good way to fully appropriate and redeem the Christmas season to our faith.

Generally, I believe most Christians are smart enough to understand what’s thoroughly biblical and what’s merely symbolic.

As for Nativity sets, pageants, and even great works of art that include sheep, kings, and little angels galore, these are a kind of visual poetry that condenses all the elements of the story into one scene. This powerful imagery is an effective way to communicate the heart and true Spirit of the Christmas story.

It’s good to remember that the kings (who weren’t kings) came later, that the stable may have been a cave or a room, that no drummer boy visited Jesus, and Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar are just made up names.

At the same time we don’t need to rob the season of these iconic images that, for the most part, lead attention to the main point of the season -- Jesus -- who really was placed in manger.

Yes, we most certainly need to be able to separate fact from fiction. Even so we can be biblically accurate and Truth-centric without being Scrooges regarding relatively harmless traditions.

Instead of humbugging what could be considered an inaccuracy or secularization, let’s creatively use the season to inject joyful truth about the Truth into our celebration and conversations.

Let’s build on the sense of “magic” by sharing the awesome “wonder” surrounding the game-changing birth of Christ.

Although, adding aliens in the mix may be one creative idea too far. I’m not sure. What do you think?


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Additional reading:

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How do you feel about “embellishments” to the Christmas story? What kinds of traditions did you grow up with that later you learned were “inaccurate”? Did you grow up believing in both Jesus and Santa Claus? If so, how did you resolve the truth and the myth later? How do believe is the best way to celebrate Christmas? What’s the most unusual tradition you’ve encountered? Please share your comments! And click here see the theme of this post presented in poetic form.

Triptych of the Nativity, García del Barco (ca. 1450 - ca. 1500).


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