Christmas Truths or Myths?
“IF YOU ask faithful Catholics why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, at least nine out of ten, some surprised and some amused, will answer: ‘Why, that is the day Jesus was born!’ If, however, you ask one of Jehovah’s Witnesses the reason why he doesn’t observe this celebration, he will invariably answer: ‘Because it is not mentioned in the Gospels.’”
This is how an article about Christmas was introduced in Il Mattino, a Naples, Italy, daily newspaper. But which view is correct? “All you need to do,” the paper added, “is thumb through Matthew and Luke (the only two evangelists who narrate the Nativity) to discover that the second answer is correct.”
Such articles are no longer unusual. News channels frequently expose as myths the commonly held beliefs about Christmas. For example, in December 1990, The Press, of Christchurch, New Zealand, featured the article “The Six Myths of Christmas.” It noted:
“MYTH 1. Santa Claus, who lives at the North Pole, skims his way around the earth on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to good little girls and boys. Well, no one likes to spoil the fun, but it’s just not right, is it? So many homes in just one night, so much fruit cake and port? And what happens when there’s no chimney? No, this yarn just doesn’t hold water. . . .
“MYTH 2. December 25 is Christ’s birthday. Hardly. Luke’s gospel says that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, shepherds were living outdoors and keeping watch over their flocks at night. In that region of Palestine the temperature in December averages 7° C [45° F.] by day and a lot cooler at night. There are frequent cold rains, sometimes snow in the highlands. The shepherds would be where their sheep have always been at that time of year—in an enclosed shelter. . . .
“MYTH 3. The first Christmas was in Bethlehem, when Christ was born. In fact its origin seems to have been in Rome, with the earliest record of its observance being in 336. It spread through East and West until being adopted by the Church of Jerusalem in the mid-5th century.
“In a sense, the beginning of Christmas really came in degrees and was merely a matter of the name of the celebration changing: identical pagan revelries and feastings had been going on in late December for centuries before Christ as part of the northern hemisphere winter solstice celebrations . . .
“The embracing of Christ’s birth in these pagan-based carousings evidently met no opposition from the church leaders, who seemed less interested in truth or theological purity than the chance to increase their flock and consequently their own power. . . .
“Small wonder the Puritans in Scotland, England and New England endeavoured to abolish Christmas during the 17th century, condemning it as a continuation of ‘the vanities and excesses the heathen indulge in.’
“So those annual cries to ‘put Christ back into Christmas’ ring very hollow indeed: the truth is, he was never willingly part of it.
“MYTH 4. The tradition of giving presents at Christmas follows the practice made by the gifts to Jesus of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In fact people had been exchanging gifts on December 25 and 26 for centuries before Christ as part of those solstice celebrations. The ancient Romans exchanged gifts as part of their sun worship festival, Saturnalia.
“In any case the Magi gave gifts to Jesus, not to one another, in accord with what was then customary, when visiting notable people. After all, Matthew’s gospel shows their interest in Jesus was as the future king of the Jews.
“MYTH 5. The ‘three wise men’ and the shepherds all did obeisance to Jesus as he lay in his manger. Whoever draws those cute nativity scenes showing the shepherds and the wise men together in the stable doesn’t read their Bible too well.
“Matthew’s gospel clearly states that when the ‘wise men’ did find Jesus, he was by this time in a house—and just as well, as it was probably a good two years after he was born.
“Additionally, when Matthew describes the visit of the Magi, he refers to Jesus as an infant, not as a baby. He was well out of swaddling clothes at this stage and the shepherds had long since returned to their flocks.
“Consider, too, that when Herod sought to assassinate the Messiah, he used the date supplied by the Magi and ordered that all male children up to the age of two be killed.
“Would he have made such [a] horrific—not to say extremely unpopular—order if he knew his quarry was just a few weeks old? . . .
“The Bible in fact nowhere suggests how many Magi there were. The Greek word in the gospel is magoi, from which the word ‘magic’ is derived. . . .
“MYTH 6. Christmas is a time for peace on earth and goodwill to all men. A noble thought indeed, but that’s not what the Bible says. . . .
“Interlinear translations of Luke’s gospel in the original Greek show that what multitudes of angels who appeared to the shepherds actually said was: ‘and upon earth peace among men of goodwill’.
“And that’s the difference. One boozy, bloated, over-commercialised day a year does not a Christian make; peace, the Bible says, does not come to those who celebrate a false birthday of Jesus, it comes to those who follow his teachings—all year.”