Most people in America know Christmas as an occasion for spending time with your loved ones, buying gifts for each other after taking a picture with the local mall Santa, listening to the most seasonal music ever, and lying to your kids about Santa eating the cookies you made last night. Within Christian communities we often talk about the true meaning of Christmas as something that has been diluted in today’s society: the birth of Jesus Christ, a story often retold with elaborate details picturing the Savior sleeping in a feeding trough and being hailed by three wealthy astrologers from the East. Many would say it is the greatest story of all time.
Since I’ve become interested in Christian history recently and have some nerdy literature at my disposal, I thought it would be interesting to look at the Nativity from a historical context. Our modern understanding leaves too much unanswered for my comfort about the origins of this great tradition that has become the most culturally energetic holiday in American society today.
Even though the birth of Jesus is often considered the greatest story of all time, within the New Testament it doesn’t actually seem to be that important. Only two of the four Gospels mention stories about the birth of Jesus. (In contrast, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all have multiple chapters on His arrest and crucifixion.) Paul does not seem to be aware of any oral traditions about Jesus’ childhood or family life; he never mentioned Mary in his writings, even though he personally knew Jesus’ brother James.[Gal 1:19] We can reasonably conclude that in the decades between Jesus’ death and the first written Christian texts, people were not particularly interested in the birth or childhood of Jesus.[White p. 228]
The Gospel of John, the latest of the four Gospels, tells us that some disbelieved in Jesus because Micah prophesied that the Messiah would come from David’s hometown Bethlehem in the south but Jesus came from Nazareth in the north.[Mic 5:2, Jn 7:40–43] It is well attested in all four Gospels that Jesus was known to be from Nazareth, especially in the Passion narratives.[White p. 241] Matthew and Luke, then, answer the critics and fulfill the prophecy by having Jesus be born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth. However, nowhere else in the New Testament is Jesus mentioned as being born in Bethlehem.[MacCulloch p. 78]
The infancy narratives in the two Gospels agree in hardly any detail besides establishing Jesus’ dual citizenship. For example, the reason that the blessed family travels between cities is different in each narrative,[Mat 2:13, Lk 2:1–5] as is whether or not Joseph and Mary were residents of Nazareth before Jesus was born.[Mat 2:22–23, Lk 2:39] Despite this, The Nativity story we tell today is usually a harmony of the two accounts, combining the details of both—the vision to Mary,[Lk 1:26–38] the vision to Joseph,[Mat 1:20–23] the census,[Lk 2:1–5] the birth in the manger,[Lk 2:7] the shepherds and angels,[Lk 2:8–20] the magi,[Mat 2:1–12] the escape to Egypt,[Mat 2:13–15] and the massacre of infants[Mat 2:16–18]—into a single larger story. (Interestingly, though, not all details have received equal attention. Christians have historically devoted much more attention to Mary’s angelic visions as presented by Luke than of the similar visions given to Joseph in Matthew, “a surprising reversal of the normal priority offered to men’s experience in the ancient world.”)[MacCulloch p. 81]
Details from later Christian writings have also made it into our collective Christian imagination. The donkey that Mary rode on the way to Bethlehem and the cave (sometimes a stable) that Jesus was born in comes from the Infancy Gospel (or Protevangelium) of James,[ProtJas 17:5, 18:1, 22:3] the earliest parts of which were written in the late second century.[White p. 377] The Infancy Gospel of James is also theologically significant for later Christians, even though it does not form a part of their canon. White describes three main results:[White p. 385]
First, the contrasting features of the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives are interwoven narratively. This helps to harmonize them to some extent. Second, it explains why Mary was chosen to become the mother of Jesus and in the process why she should be elevated in later forms of Christians devotion. Third, it “solves” a nagging theological problem that rose in later Christian speculation: how Jesus could have brothers and sisters even though Mary had come to be viewed as remaining a virgin in perpetuity.
(To answer the last question, James, the purported narrator of the book, is presented as a child from Joseph’s previous marriage, thus making him Jesus’ half-brother.)[White p. 384]
Evidently, Christians eventually became quite fascinated with Jesus’ birth and family. Many other infancy gospels were written in the centuries after Jesus, perhaps for a similar reason to why movies like The Passion of the Christ and books like the Left Behind series have captivated us in modern times. Even though Protestants do not elevate the Virgin Mary to as high of a status as Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions do, we can still see the impact of the Infancy Gospel of James along with other even later apocryphal works in the details we have added to our conception of the Christmas story as well as the Christmas carols we still sing today.[MacCulloch p. 129]
Another important detail about the Nativity we don’t have is a concrete date. Traditionally, we celebrate it on December 25, but if we are to trust the chronology of the narratives in the Gospel, it hardly provides any hints. It has been argued that the scene of the shepherds being out in the field[Lk 2:8] suggests a date “in the spring or early fall, but nothing more precise.”[White p. 230] The provision of celebration dates in Roman churches drew on earlier Roman traditions—in particular, the cycle of seasonal festivals, which many converts to the new religion were already familiar with.[White p. 231] On the Roman calendar, December 25 was the winter solstice as well as the birthday of the Mithras, Roman god of the sun. It was also nine months from the angel’s appearance to Mary, which had come to be celebrated on March 25, the spring equinox.[ibid.]
Christmas back then was not the ultimate holiday as it is today. It was just one part of a Christianized annual cycle of festivals, which also included the Epiphany (January 6), celebrating the visit of the magi. Between December 25 and January 6 are the twelve days of Christmas, famously referenced by the cryptic carol named the same. These twelve days came to contain several more feasts by the Middle Ages,[Tait & Tait] although these feasts seem to be lost to us today. But more important to early Christians was the resurrection of Jesus; Easter, its celebration, is the earliest Christian festival.[MacCulloch p. 93] The procession of festivals throughout the Church’s year “tells a story which progresses in linear fashion through the months, centring on the life of Christ.”[MacCulloch p. 432] By celebrating important events in the life of Jesus on set dates every year, Christians could live in constant memory of Christ and constant reflection of His story.
I’m going to breeze over the the rest of the history of Christmas since I don’t have much information about them from my books aside from the fact that Oliver Cromwell briefly banned Christmas celebrations in England in the 1650s.[MacCulloch p. 652] Suffice it to say that people have celebrated Christmas through the millennia in many different ways. But before we finish, I want to briefly explore where today’s Christmas comes from.
Our modern American imagery of Santa Claus and his reindeer largely come from a single poem, “The Night Before Christmas”, first published anonymously in a New York newspaper 1823. At the time, Christmas celebrations in New York were increasingly tense; traditionally, it was a time of social inversion “in which poorer people could demand food and drink from the wealthy and celebrate in the streets.”[Ringel] Elites in New York successfully repositioned Christmas as a family-oriented, child-centered holiday, also addressing the concerns of parents who wanted to keep their children safe at home during the rowdy celebrations outside.
This is the same time that the tradition of gift-giving, particularly to children, first arose. Allowing consumer products and thus commercial influence into the home initially “reflected parents’ recognition of the instructional power of consumer goods,” but gift-giving eventually became less of a medium for instruction and more for entertainment, keeping kids at home.[ibid.] And as we can tell, the traditions that developed from this time period are the ones that we are familiar with today, supplemented by billions of dollars in marketing encouraging us to buy—framing purchases as gifts is a great way to get people to buy more.
Many would say that Christmas today has become too commercialized and that we should return to a more pure celebration about Christ’s birth. I agree that Christmas is too commercialized; no doubt about it. But at the same time, it has never at any point in history been so subdued a celebration as an inward-facing time of meditation about Jesus. It has always, in some form or another, been accompanied with festivities and fun, and we should not deny ourselves that even as we celebrate the birth of our Savior.
If we are to go back to a more “pure” form of celebration of Christmas, we should also acknowledge that Easter, not Christmas, was the most important festival to early Christians (since the Passion was the most important part of Christ’s story) and that many extra-biblical sources and traditions have informed our understanding of the Nativity narrative. Celebrating the true meaning of Christmas is not something we can return to, but rather something we must create for ourselves based on the heritage that has been passed down to us. I hope that by having explored a bit of its history with me today, you have a deeper appreciation of where our complex and composite traditions come from and why we celebrate Christmas the way we do. Merry Christmas!
Citations and Further Reading
MacCulloch, D. (2010). Christianity: The First 3000 Years. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Ringel, P. (2015, December 25). Why Children Get Gifts on Christmas: A History. The Atlantic.
Tait, E. & Tait, J. W. (2008, August 8). The Real 12 Days of Christmas. Christianity Today.
White, L. M. (2011). Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite. New York, NY: HarperCollins.