The 12 myths of Christmas

Norman Wells guides us through the tinsel to the truth

Cribs, carols, cards, nativity plays and films — they all have something to say about the birth of Christ just over 2,000 years ago.

But sometimes the message they present is quite different from what really happened. Here we look at some of the most common myths and compare them with what the Bible tells us about Jesus’s birth.

Myth 1: Jesus was born on December 25.

The Truth: No one knows the date on which Jesus was born and there is no record of any date being set apart to mark his birth during the first 300 years of the history of the church. It was not until the 4th century that Christians started to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25 in an attempt to Christianise the pagan celebration of the birthday of the sun.

Myth 2: Jesus was born in a stable, surrounded by cattle.

The Truth: The fact that Jesus was laid in a manger — an animal’s feeding trough — has led many to assume that he must have been born in a stable in the midst of cattle. However, the Bible does not specifically mention a stable and it certainly doesn’t refer to the presence of animals. The precise setting in which Jesus was born and spent his earliest hours and days is not described. However, the fact that we are told ‘there was no room for them in the inn’ tells us that he was born in poverty and that his uniqueness was not recognised by those around him.

Myth 3: Three Eastern kings followed a star to Jesus’s birthplace.

The Truth: The visitors from the East are nowhere described as kings in the Bible and, although it is probably fair to assume that they were men of some standing, their precise social status is unknown. The tradition that there were three Magi or ‘wise men’ is based on the fact that they presented three gifts to Jesus — gold, frankincense and myrrh — but the Bible does not tell us how many men were in their party.

Myth 4: The shepherds and the wise men saw the infant Jesus at the same time.

The Truth: There is no basis in the Bible for the traditional nativity scene showing the shepherds and wise men visiting the newborn Christ at the same time. While the shepherds heard the news on the very night of Jesus’s birth and immediately made their way to the manger, it would appear that the wise men reached Bethlehem several months later.

Myth 5: Jesus never cried as a baby.

The Truth: As the sinless Son of God, the baby Jesus would never have been guilty of selfish or angry crying, but there is no reason to imagine that he would never have cried to communicate his need of food or comfort. The Bible tells us that Jesus was a real baby, who had a real childhood and grew up into a real man. He suffered hunger, thirst and exhaustion, and experienced joy and sorrow just like we all do, but in his case it was always without sin.

Myth 6: Christmas Day is the most holy day of the year for Christians.

The Truth: From the beginning, God has set apart one day each week as a ‘holy day’. However, apart from the requirement to treat Sunday as a special day for worship and rest from our usual activities, the Bible does not command Christians to regard any other day as a ‘holy day’.

Myth 7: It was by chance that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Mary and Joseph just happened to be staying there at the time

The Truth: The location of Jesus’s birth was far from accidental. Some 700 years before his birth, the prophet Micah had declared that the promised Christ would be born in the insignificant town of Bethlehem.

Myth 8: Jesus was born at midnight.

The Truth: The Christmas carol, ‘It came upon a midnight clear’, and the custom of some churches to hold midnight services on Christmas Eve have prompted some people to imagine that Jesus was born on the stroke of midnight. However, the Bible does not tell us the precise hour at which Jesus was born.

Myth 9: Jesus was the only child Mary ever had.

The Truth: Although Jesus was the only child Mary had as a result of a direct work of the Holy Spirit without the involvement of a human father, there is no basis for suggesting that she and Joseph did not have further children by natural means. In fact, the Bible makes several references to Jesus’s brothers, indicating that he grew up surrounded by siblings in a family headed by a couple with a normal marriage.

Myth 10: Jesus’s birth marked the beginning of his impact on the world.

The Truth: Although Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem marked the beginning of the period in which God lived on earth in human flesh, it did not mark the beginning of his existence. The Bible tells us that the Son of God had no beginning — he has always existed. In fact, the entire universe was made through him, and nothing was made without him. He therefore had an immense impact on the world long before he was born as a human baby.

Myth 11: The main purpose of Jesus coming into the world was to set us a good example.

The Truth: Although Jesus certainly does present an example to us of obedience, love to God, love for others, mercy, compassion, suffering, sacrifice and much more, that was not the primary reason for which he came into the world. The main reason for which the Son of God became man was in order to die on the cross to save us from our sins. The Bible says: ‘This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’.

Myth 12: The biblical account of the birth of Jesus is a lovely story for children at this time of year, but it doesn’t make any difference to me.

The Truth: The birth of Jesus makes a profound difference to all of us, whether young or old. Without Jesus, we are cut off from God and none of us is good enough to make it to heaven on our own. The Bible says that Jesus Christ is only person who can bring us to God, because he is both God and man. He knows what it is like to be human, and he also has the divine power that is needed to bring us back to God. If Jesus had never been born as a baby in Bethlehem, there would be no hope for any of us. But as a result of his birth, and through his subsequent death and resurrection, he has opened up for us a way back to God. Jesus himself said: ‘I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in me should not abide in darkness’ (John 12.46).