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6 Curious Questions About Christmas You Always Wanted to Ask

merry ChristmasWas Jesus actually born on December 25?

How does Santa fit into things?

Is my nativity scene correct?

Each year I get several questions about the curiosities of Christmas. Why? Well, I’m a pastor and this is a big religious holiday for many of us.

But it has also morphed into a wider cultural celebration about “giving,” “love,” or something else. All this seems to expand people’s desire to know what in the world is going on!

So here are some of the most popular inquiries (and my attempt to answer them):

1. Where does the word “Christmas” come from? 

Some churches call the Lord’s Supper “Communion” or “Mass.” Once a year in some parts of the world they would have a Mass to celebrate Christ’s birth—hence: “Christ’s Mass.” Say “Christ’s Mass” quickly there times and there you go! Christmas.

2. Was Jesus actually born on December 25?

Short answer: We don’t know the exact day he was born. Explanation, read on:

A long time ago the Romans had celebrations on December 25th to acknowledge that winter had turned and the days were getting longer (in the process they would worship a whole variety of things).

As Christianity grew through the world, that day was chosen to affix Jesus’ birthday. (If people already had holidays booked because of this Roman custom, why not piggy back on that?)

Okay, so if it wasn’t December 25th, when was it?

If we assume that shepherds weren’t likely to tend their flocks in December (it was just as unlikely in Palestine then as it is in North America now), and if we do some speculating based on the proximity to his cousin John the Baptist’s birth (based on when John’s father Zacharias was serving in the temple), some venture Jesus was more likely born in the fall, probably September.

But, of course, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that he was born. (Remember that he’s the most documented and influential figure ever to walk the earth.) Plus, he was born for a purpose. As Jesus grew, more and more people started recording stories about his teachings and significance. The exact day he was born in a manger just wasn’t one of them.

3. Are Our Nativity Scenes Accurate?

Kind of, but not really.

Most of our nativity (birth) scenes are very serene and conjure pleasant thoughts of “Away in a Manger.” But consider this.

A very young Hebrew woman is living in an occupied land. They do not have the freedom they hope for and are awaiting a Messiah (a word that means God’s “anointed”/chosen one).

She and Joseph begin a journey (not really ideal when you’re pregnant!—and no the Bible doesn’t say anything about a donkey), to the town of Joseph’s ancestors (Bethlehem) to be a part of some kind of census (no historical records exist of this census outside the Bible; but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t one).

They are not welcomed well (why would they be?—they have no real social status) and are forced into the modern equivalent of a back garage somewhere, perhaps with relatives. But we can assume since a manger is present that there are animals with accompanying smells. (A manger is a feeding trough for animals.)

Was he born the same night they arrived? Maybe. But it could have been days or weeks later. The story just doesn’t tell us.

But the crucial point is this: The World Rescuer and King is born where no one would expect: In a feeding trough for dirty animals in the shadows of political oppression.

This is the God of explosive love who is turning everyone’s expectations upside down.

But back to our nativity scenes: Yes, shepherds would have been present according to Luke’s Gospel. But if your nativity has wise men that wouldn’t have been until sometime later, perhaps even a few years. They were probably astrologers, and we don’t know how many of them there were—again, the Bible simply doesn’t say. The lyric “We three kings…” is definitely misleading.

4. How Does Santa Fit Into All This?

Saint Nicolas was a priest in Europe who lived over 1500 years ago. Little is known about his life, but he helped poor children by giving out coins and gifts through their windows. December 6th came to be a day when people celebrated him. Many put an empty boot outside or stocking inside hoping he would fill them with gifts.

In the 1600’s Dutch settlers in North America brought these stories with them. They called Saint Nicolas “Sinterklaas.” Soon the name was English-ized into Santa Claus. Hear the name resemblance?

So following this path, Santa Claus is the modern remembrance of Saint Nicolas who gave out presents (originally to the poor) to share and show the love of Christ.

Drag the December 6 date a few weeks down the calendar to blend it with Jesus’ birth — and bingo!

(An aside: Why does he wear a red hat? Well, remember how Saint Nicolas was a priest? He was also a bishop, and they often wear red hats. The red today is a holdover from that.)

5. Where Do Christmas Trees Come In?

This one is hard to chop down… um, I mean, nail down.

In various parts of the world trees have historically been used to decorate and help celebrate for various occasions. But one of the stories I like the most (even though it has little historical basis) is the great Reformer Martin Luther wading through the snow around Christmas time and looking up on a hill through some evergreens. The stars in the night sky twinkled through the branches and reminded him of the shepherds from the nativity story. So he cut down the tree, put it in his house and decorated it with candles to re-create the effect.

Who knows.

But there is a strong tree tradition that came from Germany; and it probably came into North America through those who immigrated here.

6. How Do We Keep Christ in Christmas?

I hear this a lot. Actually, I don’t hear it a lot. But I see it a lot in Facebook memes and on bumper stickers.

But essentially, the concern some have is to keep focused on what matters: Jesus’ birth and not the rabid frothy commercialization of things.

Ironically, for a long time, many Christians refused to celebrate Christmas. Huh? That’s right. Why? Because it’s not a holiday outlined in the Bible. (There are other reasons too.) It’s really only in modern times that it’s become a bigger deal.

So my response—which is also what I’ll talk about Christmas Eve and how I’ll end this blog—is to keep faithful focus on the following. Do you want to keep Christ in Christmas?

Fear not

Feed the hungry

Clothe the poor

Heal the sick

Fight evil

Love

Pray

Maybe Christmas,” the Grinch thought, “doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

Or… a lot more.

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13 Comments »

  1. I would add to your list of things to do in keeping Christ in Christmas: be non judgmental. Be inclusive in your deeds & beliefs.

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    • Hi Errol, I think being non-judgmental is a good thing all year around not just at Christmas! haha. And in terms of being ‘inclusive in your deeds & beliefs’ I guess it depends on what it is. Assuming that we’re talking about things in concert with Jesus’ teachings then I would agree! I hope you are well and thanks for the comment.

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  2. Great job. My understanding is Christmas trees were brought to the English speaking world by Prince Albert who put trees on display in various Royal residences and caught the public’s fancy.

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  3. Matthew, thanks, I always enjoy reading your thoughts. They are very well put. Nevertheless, I hope you don’t mind if I put forward a bit of a quibble:

    We do have historical evidence of a Census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria that definitely seems to be the one that Luke is referring to. The problem is, however, that that census was not taken until 6 AD which is too late according to a timeline based on Matthew’s gospel. But it is hard to imagine that a Roman census would be taken in a territory that had been under the administration of Herod’s family until Judea was brought under direct Roman rule in 6 AD.

    What we don’t have any historical basis for is a census taken in the manner that seems to be described – with people traveling to their ancestral homes to register. The Romans never required that and it is a rather nonsensical way to take a census. (What would you count people where they don’t live if you want to find them and tax them later?)

    Of course, I feel the need to make these points as much as I can because I wrote a whole book on this historical problem and my personal solution to it: Caesar’s Census, God’s Jubilee.

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    • Hi Scott, thanks for your thoughts! It’s great to receive them, and you are definitely a great source of info on this stuff. BTW, if you respond to this blog why not put a link to where people can get your book? It sounds great and I’d love to read it.
      Yes, the issue of the census and timing is, as you are well aware, a tricky one. I guess the one comment I would make — again, a line of thought you’re probably aware of based on your own research — is to highlight the tendency in recent biblical studies (at least descending from the German liberal traditions) to discount Scripture as a source of credible historical information. The rationale behind doing this (the “bias” or “assumption”) has often been that Scripture can’t be spoken of as “inspired” not can it be a reliable source of information to find out ‘what actually happened.’ Why? The reasoning, some scholars have argued, is that the biblical writers simply changed historical details to suit their own theological purposes. I’m glad that some historical Jesus studies have come out in more recent times which call this approach into question.
      I say all of this just to highlight the tension. You write: “What we don’t have any historical basis for is a census taken in the manner that seems to be described.” But if that is so, then you are saying that the Bible provides no “historical basis” for what happened. I’m not sure if that’s what you’re saying, but it appears it might be so; or at least you may be suggesting that it can’t be the sole basis for historical information. Of course, I’m no expert in how the ancient Romans taxed people, but it’s all food for thought, and I certainly feel that Scripture can be cited as a source of historical information—even if the details are sometimes tricky to figure out. (To see an article about why I feel we can trust the reliability of the Gospels click here: https://matthewruttan.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/2014-04-27-m-ruttan-can-you-trust-the-bible-about-the-resurrection-notes.pdf )
      You mention your book has a solution to the issue. If so, I’d love to read it! Thanks again for your thoughtful response to my blog and may God richly bless you this Advent and Christmas!

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  4. Matthew, my book is available on Amazon in print and e-book. It is also available through most e-book sellers if you search for it (Kobo, ibooks, etc.). Here is the amazon.ca link:

    http://www.amazon.ca/Caesars-Census-Jubilee-Scott-McAndless-ebook/dp/B00FFEXI00

    I do completely agree that what the gospel writers are doing is not history in the sense that we would understand it today. They are writing these gospels to get across deep theological truths about who Jesus was and why he came. They do not hesitate to change the “facts” of historical events to bring out their truths more clearly when it suits them (or when they don’t know what the facts are).

    Nevertheless, Luke in particular is very much aware of historical events and uses them very creatively to bring out the truths about Jesus — much more so than the other evangelists. His information is often quite accurate but he still changes it to make his points. If you understand the theological point he is making you can often detect what he is doing with his historical information. That is a long discussion but i can give you a few examples if you like.

    One of the historical circumstances that Luke uses is the 6 AD census. That he chooses to set the birth of Jesus during that census doesn’t mean that he necessarily has accurate information that Jesus was born at that time, but the historical setting is convenient because it allows him to make certain theological points about the coming of Jesus. This history is a tool, not the primary point.

    I do think that Luke’s telling of the historical circumstances surrounding could be fairly accurate (even if Jesus was not necessarily actually born at that time). There was a census at that time. We know that from Josephus. I also happen to think that it is possible that there were people traveling to register in places other than where they actually lived. I just don’t think they did that because the Romans told them to. (Luke never says that the Romans told them to do that — just that they did it.) I think Luke may have another explanation (a theological explanation grounded in Old Testament law) for the traveling in mind. That is the central idea of my book.

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    • Hi Scott, thanks for the link to the book, I appreciate it and will track it down.

      And thanks for the further explanation of your thoughts. I would agree that today we have a fairly ‘modern’ understanding of what constitutes historical ‘fact’ and that writers 2000 years ago, at least the ones whom I’ve researched and read about, would have understood it a bit differently.

      However, I disagree with your statement that the Gospel writers readily change facts to bring out their truths more clearly when it suits them. Examples abound about how this might have happened and why (perhaps the most notorious example is in Rudolf Bultmann’s ‘History of the Synoptic Tradition.’) One of the points I often make is that with the Gospels we are not dealing with an ancient ‘myth’ genre or something to that effect. Although Scripture has different literary forms which influence meaning (for example, we read and interpret the poetry of the psalms differently than we might the law codes or prophecy or epistles), the Gospels are more reportage (to use C.S. Lewis’ term). In fact, the historical details are SO important that the writers go out of their way to include them (whether that be preserving the Aramaic words of Jesus in several spots, or other detail that is ‘irrelevant’ to the basic progression of a story-line like Peter’s fish-catch of exactly 153 or that Jesus sleeps on a ‘cushion’ or that the grass is ‘green’ or that the father of Simon of Cyrene is ‘the father of Alexander and Rufus’). One of the most convincing arguments to me is a personal one: Why would Gospel writers alter historical ‘facts’ (even if they did think of facts in a different way than we moderns do), and risk jeopardizing the credibility of this life-altering story?—A story they felt so passionately about that many of them died for it?

      So do Gospel writers change ‘facts’ when it suits them? In my mind, no. But do they emphasize certain elements of a story if it communicates something more clearly to their audience? Yes. It’s simply effective communication; and I personally do it all the time. For example, when my 5-year old daughter asks me why people killed Jesus, I tell her that his love was so big that it would change the world, and that some people liked things the way they were so they wanted to get rid of him. Is that the whole story? No. But is it part of the story that she will relate to? Yes. I think the different thrusts of the Gospels must be part of how God uses different people to communicate different elements of a story to those who need to hear it.

      Thanks again Scott!

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      • Okay, I apologize that i didn’t say what I mean. No, I don’t think that the gospel writers just change the “facts” when it suits them. I don’t think that they change the fact lightly at all. In fact, they greatly respected the histories and traditions that were passed down to them. But respecting the history didn’t mean exactly the same thing to them as it does to us. They also believed that the Old Testament scriptures were a completely legitimate source for information on the life of Christ. They did not hesitate to look in the pages of the Old Testament to find all kinds of details on the life of Jesus. For example, Matthew took what he saw as the “fact” that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of two animals (Matt 21:7) from the Old Testament (v.5). They also saw inspiration as a legitimate source. This is not lightly making up or altering facts. This was very serious and God breathed work for them.

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