You know…Christmas is a wonderful holiday. I know that many have said that a war is being waged on Christmas, citing the new trend of shoppers being greeted with “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas”…and other strange little insignificant issues that people seem to love obsessing over. In reality though, Christmas itself is a strange mish-mosh of pagan and Christian symbols, replete with syncretism and outright mythology.
One interesting bit of mythology is the ordinary Nativity Scene. A typical Nativity Scene looks like this:
It has Mary, Joseph and Jesus, which is a good place to start, but what’s really interesting is all the stuff that has been added which is, as far as we know, pure fiction.
WHAT?!! How can you say that?
Well…just hang with me here. As I said, the main characters are right…but in addition to them, we have three wise men (when the Bible just says “Wise men came from the east”….no number given. There were three gifts mentioned, but that is no proper indicator of how many made the trip. Also, we are told that the wise men came and visited the “young child”…which most scholars seem to think indicates this was 1-2 years after his birth).
Also in addition to Mary, Joe and Jesus is a group of animals. I had always heard the wonderful stories of the animals all bowing down to the Little Lord Jesus and always was fond of them. They are nice…but totally fabricated. There’s no scriptural indication that any such thing happened.
Actually, the stable which houses this nice Nativity Scene is apocryphal. The language the Bible uses doesn’t indicate a western style wooden stable at all, but more likely is referring to the lower room of a family house, where much of the cooking was done, and where smaller animals would be housed and fed during the cold months.
Other things like the Innkeeper (which isn’t in the scene above but is usually part of the story), and even the idea of a traditional western style “inn” are fabrications as well. Joseph was heading to his ancestral home for the census…he would have had family in Bethlehem. The word translated as inn is really quite nebulous in our language, and is also the word used to describe the upper room where Jesus met with his disciples and families for the last Passover meal they shared. The word used for “inn” could just mean there wasn’t any room left in the guest room of Joseph’s family when he came to Bethlehem, so he and Mary had to go to the lower room and bunk there…oh yeah, and birth a child.
It’s kind of strange, isn’t it? All the stuff of tradition that seeps into our understanding of a story, which really alters the original quite a bit. There are a LOT of things, just like the Nativity Scene, that have been reverently placed in the concept of church which have no basis in scripture for their origin. That’s why I still insist that simple is safer. We know Joseph was there….and Mary was too, and best of all Jesus was. All the other stuff is just along for the ride, we can take it or leave it. So with the church. We know Jesus is there…that he died on a cross to save us and draw us together….beyond that, most stuff is based on cultural preference and view. If we hold to the peripheral stuff loosely, we’ll stay with the simple….and to me, that’s where its safe.
Merry Christmas!(by the by, here’s an interesting site to read about how the birth of Christ may have gone down)