It is unfortunate that Christmas--the commemoration of our Savior's birth--is marred by so much misinformation and misunderstanding. Too often our ideas about Christmas are influenced more by images from Christmas cards or even from sources hostile to Christianity. Here are seven ideas about Christmas which range from the unsubstantiated to the flat out false.
Jesus Was Born in a Barn
People often infer this from the fact that Luke 2:7 says that Mary laid the baby Jesus in a manger. In our culture we find mangers in stables or barns, and people make the inference from that.
But at the time animals were often sheltered in caves, and there is a very strong tradition that dates at least to the 100s, that Jesus was born in a cave. Today the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is built over such a cave, which is next to the one that the biblical scholar St. Jerome dwelt in during the 300s. In his writings, Jerome points to evidence that the cave under the Church of the Nativity was, in fact, where Jesus was born.
There Were Three Wise Men
The account of the wise men, or magi (who were not kings, by the way), is recorded in Matthew 2, but it does not say anywhere that there were three wise men.
This number is probably inferred from the fact that three gifts are mentioned: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But we really don't know much about the size or composition of the magi's caravan. The odds are that, for such rich and visiting dignitaries, the caravan was more than three people and, in addition to the magi, included quite a number of other people, including servants and guards.
The Wise Men Arrived the Same Night
Again, the images on Christmas cards haunt us by depicting the magi arriving on the night of Jesus' birth.
We know that they associated the rising of the star of Bethlehem with Jesus' birth, and the trip from their distant homeland would have been too long to make in a single night. Matthew 2:10 records that by this point the holy family was living in a house (although it could have been a house combined with the grotto of the Nativity, for homes were often combined with caves).
Most fundamentally, Matthew 2:16 indicates that Herod sought to kill all the boys two years old and under, based on the time he learned from the magi, so they may have showed up as much as two years later (although Herod may also have padded the figure just to be "safe").
December 25th Can't Be the Birth of Christ Because Sheep Aren't Pastured in the Winter
It is often argued that Jesus couldn't have been born December 25th because Luke 2:8 records that there were shepherds pasturing their flocks, and this doesn't happen in the area in winter.
But it does.
Bethlehem is below the snow line, sheep have fleece to keep them warm, and even today sheep are pastured in the Shepherds' Field near Bethlehem at this very time of year.
Christmas Trees Are Forbidden by the Old Testament
Some Fundamentalists argue that Jeremiah 10 condemns having Christmas trees as a pagan practice.
This would be odd, since Jeremiah wrote centuries before the birth of Christ and thus before the celebration of Christmas.
A careful reading of the passage, though, shows that Jeremiah isn't talking about ornamented holiday trees at all. He's talking about idols. That's why he points out that after a tree is cut down and a workman goes to work on it that it cannot speak, that it cannot move on its own and must be carried, that we should not be afraid of it, and that it has power to do neither evil or good to us. Jeremiah is pointing out the limitations of dead idols, not Christmas trees.
Christmas Is Based on a Pagan Holiday
Sometimes Fundamentalists, secularists, and pagans argue that Christmas is just a pagan holiday that has been "baptized" by the Church. Accounts differ as to which one. Sometimes it is claimed that Christmas is based on Saturnalia or the birth of Sol Invictus ("the unconquerable sun").
But Saturnalia wasn't celebrated on December 25th. It ran from December 17th to the 23rd. It was over and done with before the 25th.
We do have records that suggest some pagans celebrated the birth of Sol Invictus on December 25th, but the first such record dates from the year A.D. 354 (on what is known as the Calendar of Filocalus or the Chronology of 354). The trouble is, even this source isn't fully explicit. It just says that December 25 was celebrated as the Natalis Invicti or the "Birthday of the Unconquerable One," without saying who that is.
We also know that some Christians had been identifying December 25th as Jesus' birthday at least a century and a half before this time. Around A.D. 206, St. Hippolytus of Rome wrote in his Commentary on Daniel that:
"The first coming of our Lord, that in the flesh, in which he was born at Bethlehem, took place eight days before the kalends of January."
In ancient Roman time reckoning, the kalends was the first day of the month, and if you count back eight days from January 1, you arrive at December 25.
It's true that we don't know for sure when Jesus was born, and early Christian writers proposed a variety of dates for his birth, including December 25th. But what is remarkable, in light of modern claims, is that when they write about Christ's birth they never say things like, "Let's schedule his birthday here so that we can convert a bunch of pagans" or "Let's put it here so that we can subvert this pagan holiday."
When they propose dates for his birth, they use arguments to support their view, and they honestly believe that he was born on the dates they propose.
It Would Matter If Christmas Were Connected with a Pagan HolidayEven if early Christians had scheduled the commemoration of Christ's birth to subvert a pagan holiday, so what?
How does that taint the celebration of Christmas today--by people who have never even heard of these pagan holidays? Aren't they honestly celebrating Christ's birth, regardless of the precise day on which it happened?
Further, isn't subverting a pagan holiday a good thing? Don't many Protestant groups celebrate October 31 not as Halloween (which they wrongly perceive as pagan) but as "Reformation Day" or "Harvest Festival"?
Helping people wean themselves off of pagan practices by providing a wholesome, alternative celebration would seem to be a good thing rather than a bad thing.
Still, there's no evidence that this is what early Christians were doing with Christmas, and in fact the evidence is against it.