What the First Christmas Day Was Like

Merry Christmas!  Hopefully you’re celebrating Jesus birthday through worship at church.

ManagerSince we’re celebrating today, it might be helpful to get an accurate understanding of what the first Christmas ‘celebration’ was like.  There are many misconceptions about the birth of Jesus.  These myths were created through movies and songs that add to the information provided in the Gospels about Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and Jesus’ birthday.  Read through this list and decide which are part of Jesus’ birth story as told by the Gospels and which aren’t.

  • The angel Gabriel appeared to Joseph to inform him that Mary was with child
  • Mary traveled to Bethlehem on a donkey
  • The Bible says that three wise men came to to the manger to worship and give gifts to Jesus
  • The wise men were kings from the Orient
  • A bright star appeared in the sky and led the shepherds to the manger
  • A bright star appeared in the sky and let the wise men to the manger
  • The shepherds and the wise men were present on the night of Jesus’ birth
  • Mary, Joseph and Jesus shared space with donkeys, camels and sheep
  • An innkeeper told Mary and Joseph that there was no room in the inn, thus Jesus was born in a manger

The answer to all of the items is ‘False’ because of the items underlined do not appear in the Scriptures.  They are assumptions like the inn keeper, traveling via donkey and Gabriel visit to Joseph or legends like the number of wise men (based on the number of gifts). None of them are part of the birth story as told by Matthew or Luke.  Reread the Gospel accounts yourself in Matthew 1:18-2:18 and Luke 1:26-38; 2:1-40 and note the following facts:

  1. Mary and Joseph were engaged, but not married.  They lived in the city of Nazareth in Galilee.  The angel Gabriel told Mary that she was ‘with child from the Holy Spirit’ who will be called the ‘Son of God’ (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:26-38)
  2. An angel (we don’t know who) appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take Mary as his wife (rather than divorcing her) and that she will have a son named Jesus who will ‘save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:19-25)
  3. A registration of all people was declared by Caesar Augustus requiring Joseph and his soon to be wife Mary to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because Joseph was in the family of David
  4. They arrived in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to Jesus.  She wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid them in a manger because there was no room at the inn (Luke 2:1-7)
  5. The shepherds were in their fields in the same region and an angel of the Lord appeared to them in the glory of the Lord to announce the birth of the Savior.  The angel told the shepherds that they’d find the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger.  A multitude of angels appeared praising God (Luke 2:8-14)
  6. The shepherds hurried to Bethlehem to see Jesus and found Mary and Joseph along with baby Jesus in the manger.  The shepherds told them of the angels message.  They returned to the fields praising God (Luke 2:15-20)
  7. (Some undefined time later) ‘Wise men from the east’ come to king Herod in Jerusalem and asked where Jesus, the baby King of the Jews was.  The had seen a star and came to worship him (Matthew 2:1-2)
  8. Herod was troubled along with all of Jerusalem, so he assembled the chief priests and scribes to explain where the Christ was to be born.  They told him that He would be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:3-6)
  9. Herod asked the wise men back to find out when they’d seen the star and then sent them to Bethlehem to find Jesus.  He asked them to return to Jerusalem to tell him where Jesus was (Matthew 2:7-8)
  10. As the wise men set out toward Jerusalem, they saw the star again and it lead them (‘came to rest over the place’) to where Jesus was.  They went into the house and found Mary and her child, Jesus.  They worshiped Him and gave him gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:9-11)
  11. The wise men were warned in a dream to return to their home country along a path that avoided Herod in Jerusalem (Matthew 2:10-12)
  12. On the night the wise men departed, Joseph the angel of the Lord warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt.  They ran away at night and stayed in Egypt until Herod died (Matthew 2:13-15)
  13. Herod discovered that the wise men weren’t returning and had all of the male children under the age of two in Bethlehem and the surrounding region killed (Matthew 2:16-18)

This is all of the detail that we have about the first Christmas.  Everything else has been added through extra-Biblical sources.  Just take a look at the manger images on Google to see examples of illustrations with animals, star on the birth night and The birthday story itself really ends after #6 and the Bible isn’t even clear as to whether the shepherds found Jesus the same day he was born.  The wise men clearly didn’t see Jesus until some time later (possibly up to two years given Herod’s decree) because Mary and Joseph moved into a house and Jesus is described as a child rather than as a baby when the shepherds found him.  Not to ruin the classic picture any more, but one more point to note is that the Gospel stories make no mention of animals in the space where Jesus was born.

One the more positive side, some cultural background will help paint a more accurate Christmas story for you:

  • Mary was likely between 12 and 15 and Joseph 25 when they were engaged.  Engagement was the official legal bond rather than the marriage ceremony, which is why Joseph considered a divorce
  • Joseph could have Mary stoned to death (since they were legally married) as a punishment for unfaithfulness
  • They were poor as indicated by the offering of doves at Jesus presentation at the temple (Luke 2:22-24)
  • The census was likely issued in 8 BC, but did not make it to Israel until 5 BC
  • The wise men were likely from Arabia which was known for its frankincense and myrrh
  • Killing all of the children under two was within Herod’s character.  He had his favorite wife killed because he suspected that she was going to betray him

For more details on the fact and fiction of Jesus birthday see common misconceptions about Jesus birth and nativity scene misconceptions.  Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey and In the Fullness of Time by Paul Meier are good resources on this topic.  They are the source of cultural background information.

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