December 25 – Merry Mishmash

Today’s factismal: Christ wasn’t born on Christmas. (Nor was Isaac Newton, for that matter.)

How would you like to be the least liked person at your church’s annual Christmas pageant this morning? All you have to do is start pointing out all of the things that are wrong with the display, starting with the presence of the Christ child. You see, if you follow the Gospels (and who doesn’t?) Christ wasn’t born in December; he was born at a much different time. We know this thanks to the shepherds, who were “abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock”. Then, as now, sheep spend the winter in cotes and only start going out into the fields for the night in the late spring.

If it makes you feel better, Isaac Newton wasn’t born on Christmas Day, either. Instead, he was born on what we would call January 4th; thanks to errors in the calendar that the Protestant British didn’t want to fix because then they’d be agreeing with the Catholics, Newton’s birthday got the wrong date. (They fixed it a few years later.)

This Nativity is beautiful, but it is wrong (My camera)

This Nativity is beautiful, but it is wrong
(My camera)

So there shouldn’t be an infant in the Nativity scene. But the rest of it is OK, right? Wrong. Another common mistake is the representation of three “wise men” being at the manger with the Holy Family. The only problem with that is the Magi didn’t show up at Christ’s birth; instead, they arrived some time later, after an unfortunate stop at Herod’s palace. (This is why the Feast of Epiphany, which closes out the Christmas season {and marks the start of Mardi Gras season}, happens on January 6.) The other problem is that the Magi aren’t specifically mentioned as being kings; they could have been itinerant astrologers as was common in that period. The other, other problem is that we don’t know how many Magi there were (or what their names were). Though tradition has it that there were three, which matches the number of gifts given, it is possible that there were only two or more than a hundred and that they were named anything from Balthazar to Zebulon.

OK, so there shouldn’t be an infant and there shouldn’t be any Magi. Now can we go on? Nope. You see those animals? They probably shouldn’t be there, either. You see, though there was “no room at the inn”, people wouldn’t have been asked to bed down with animals as that would have been ritually unclean; having animals sleep in the same place as people would have required the men to undergo a purification ritual at the temple. So the animals would have been turned out in corrals for the night and wouldn’t have been permitted to put so much as a hair inside while Joseph and Mary spent the night in the stable.

Cute? Definitely. Accurate? Definitely not. (My camera)

Cute? Definitely. Accurate? Definitely not.
(My camera)

Fine. We’ve gotten rid of the infant, the Magi, and the animals. Now can we go on? Nope – there’s just one last thing that needs to be fixed. You see that star? It shouldn’t be there either. Even though the Gospels do mention a star leading the Magi, that star doesn’t show up over the house where the Holy Family is living until the Magi arrive much later in the story. And there is also the question of if the star was really a star. Given the rather limited knowledge that people in 4 BCE had about astronomical phenomena, the word “star” could have meant a nova, a conjunction, a comet, or even an aurora.

So what would a true Nativity scene look like in December? It would look like a young couple struggling to put together enough money to make the trip to Bethlehem. The young man would be nervous and excited and a little proud. And the young bride-to-be would be just showing evidence of the child she bears as she glows with the serene majesty of impending motherhood. And far off in the distance would be all of the surprises that will make their life fully and truly blessed – not the least of which is the child that they will raise together.

And that is the true meaning of Christmas – people coming together in love to care for the future.  So I wish you the Merriest Christmas of all, full of love and joy and a bright future for you and yours!

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