Christmas carols have been lying to us for centuries. The Nativity is WRONG!
But only because the poets who wrote the lyrics simply didn’t know any better.
You see, the image we have of a traditional nativity is merely that: a tradition. (And if you’ve read my books, you know I’m a cynic about traditions.) Most of what we set up in December to remember the birth of Jesus Christ is wildly inaccurate, yet innocently so.
The truth, however, is even more wonderful than what we’ve always thought.
Here are scenes of a nativity I made over twenty years ago so my kids could have something to play with. (Although a few horns have been lost over the years. And a cow’s gone to pasture in the storage room.) More recently I’ve learned about Dr. Margaret Barker, a remarkable Methodist preacher and theologian who studied at Cambridge and has devoted her research to ancient Christianity. She’s written a book, Christmas: The Original Story demonstrating how we’ve messed up the story of the Nativity for so many years.
This year I’ve thought about her insights, and I’ve concluded that we can place much of the blame of incorrectness on our beautiful, meaningful, Christmas carols. My brief research shows that most of the religious songs were written during the 1600 to 1800s, in England and Europe, and reflect much more about the authors’ lives rather than the Savior’s.
Let me make it clear: I love these carols, and am happy when we sing them in church throughout December. But enjoying them doesn’t mean I don’t have to point out a few inconsistencies (because I’m just that cynical).
First, let’s look at some iconic images that really have no basis in anything except . . . well, everyone told us this is how it is.
For example, how many images do we have of Mary riding a donkey, heavily pregnant, for miles and miles on the way to Bethlehem because of taxes? The image is in movies, books, Christmas cards . . .
Now, where in the New Testament is that donkey mentioned? Yep, nowhere. (There’s an awesome talking donkey in the Old Testament, however.)
Mary likely didn’t even ride a donkey (I’ve read one suggestion that the riding of a donkey is the idea of a preacher in the 19th century who thought it would add realism to their reenactment). And who says they traveled alone? No one in the New Testament. We’ve romanticized the story. Read this fascinating blog (or watch the Youtube link) of Sandie Zimmerman, wife of Messianic Rabbi Jack Zimmerman:
If Joseph was just going to Bethlehem for administrative purposes, why would he have brought his nine-month-pregnant wife? They were told to go to their ancestral home. They lived in Nazareth, but that wasn’t Joseph’s home. Wouldn’t that be careless and irresponsible of Joseph to wait till the very last minute to take his wife? . . . Don’t you think that Joseph would have been better prepared knowing that the Son of God was coming into the world? So, he was returning to his homeland.
. . . Here’s what would have happened. First, the Roman census was ordered, and Joseph had to go immediately. Now, when I say immediately, I am sure they went a month or two beforehand, because if you read the passage, it says, “and while they were there, she gave birth.” So they were already there.
I also recently heard a suggestion that Joseph and Mary knew full well about the prophecies of where Jesus would be born, and deliberately moved to the City of David in anticipation.
And as for the image of Joseph frantically knocking on doors, because the inns were full? Zimmerman suggests that Joseph had a home there already, and it was full of family visiting because of the census (not taxes) so the home was packed. The family had no inns to go to, so Joseph devised another place for his ready-to-give-birth wife so she’d have some privacy.
. . . Depending on what their house looked like, and let’s say they had a cave-like dwelling attached to the house, Joseph probably would have gone in there, gotten all the animals out, and cleaned it up, leaving the sukkah still standing. Then that’s where Mary gave birth to Yeshua, in something very clean, because Jewish law again would not permit her to give birth with animals around.
While this alternative may mess with your vision of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, I prefer it. Joseph was planning and caring for his wife and future stepson, who would also be his future Savior. He knew what he was doing, and they were prepared.
So how do Christmas carols provide more myth than truth? Let’s examine “The First Noel,” historically also the First Offender, giving us lines such as “certain poor shepherds” and “on a cold winter’s night.”
Back in 17th century England, when these lines were penned, it likely was a cold winter’s night in Britain. But not in Israel! Forget the idea that there was snow on the ground at Jesus’s birth (there blows the credibility of a dozen Christmas cards I saw at the store). Snow in Israel is exceptionally rare. And Jesus was likely not born in winter, but in the early spring when sheep were lambing.
And about those “certain poor shepherds”? Doubtful there were as poor as our 1600-something poet liked to believe. Likely the real reason these shepherds were in the field with their flocks at night (normally they were kept safe in a sheepfold) was because the sheep were lambing, and these were no ordinary sheep. They were the paschal lambs, and the shepherds watching over them were making sure they were born healthily because they would become the sacrificial lambs in the temple. Remembering the covenant instituted by Moses–sacrificing a perfect lamb for the Passover–these priestly-shepherds would have, more than anyone else, recognized the significance of the birth of their Savior. It was to them that the angels came to announce the Final and Ultimate Lamb for the sacrifice.
Which leads us to “Away in a Manger,” a classic children’s carol. When the shepherds came to see the baby in the cave (get that wooden stable picture out of your head), they didn’t find baby Jesus in a “manger filled with hay.” Back in the 1880s when this song first became popular, I have no doubt every manger had straw in it. One source attributes the words to Martin Luther, who back in the 1400-1500s certainly knew about straw and mangers.
However, the manger probably wasn’t made of lumber, but of stone.
Read this marvelous blog by Jenedy Paige and the accompanying painting she did of the newborn Jesus. Citing an article by Jeffrey R. Chadwick, she explains what I’ve read in a few other sources. The manger was stone.
Think about that: the manger was stone, likely for holding water (but emptied), since the animals had plenty of fresh grass around to eat. When the shepherds came to see baby Jesus, he was resting in a stone trough, like a paschal lamb sacrifice. They would recognize the symbolism, and fallen down to worship the Lamb of God.
Still, this manger with hay is surely a beloved image. In the LDS Church, we have several Christmas songs written for children to help them remember whose birthday we’re celebrating, but it’s impossible to get rid of that manger and hay.
So I’m sorry, “Once within a Lowly Stable:” Mary didn’t lay her baby in a “manger filled with hay.”
Same to “Oh, Hush Thee, My Baby.”
And to you, “The Nativity Song.” I’m so sorry . . .
Now that I’ve crushed your image of the manger, let’s discuss those swaddling bands. “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” was written by Nahum Tate sometime between 1652 and 1715, and he gives the notion of swaddling cloths a bit of a negative connotation: “All meanly wrapped in swathing bands.” I’ve heard others describe swaddling cloths as evidence that Mary and Joseph were impoverished, and had only strips of cloth for their babe. Oh, the poor baby. No onesies? And it’s so cold outside! (Ah, got you—remember: no snow! Springtime.)
However, swaddling cloths were traditional, expected, and may have carried a variety of meanings. Back to Jenedy Paige and Jeffrey R. Chadwick:
. . . “swaddling bands” as scraps of fabric, [supposedly] showing the poverty of Mary and Joseph . . . were actually a big part of Israelite culture. When a young woman was betrothed she immediately began embroidering swaddling bands, which were 5-6” wide strips of linen that would be embroidered with symbols of the ancestry of the bride and groom. Thus the bands symbolized the coming together of the two families as one.
And Dr. Barker, according to David Larsen,
“notes that ‘she wrapped him in swaddling clothes’ is literally ‘she wrapped him around.’ The important aspect of the inclusion of this detail in Luke’s story, for Barker, is that the newly born baby was clothed. The ‘clothing’ of the ‘newly born’ high priest was an important part of the temple ritual where he became the son of God.”
Sandie Zimmerman says that,
“Mary brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, back then when a baby was born, the umbilical cord was cut, the baby was salted, and then the baby was oiled with frankincense and myrrh. Even at His birth, that is a picture of His death, being anointed and being prepared.”
Consider this beautiful image as to where else the swaddling cloths may have come from. Zimmerman says,
“During the time of Sukkot, the priests were in the Temple. In the Holy of Holies, the high priest would take his linen undergarment, discard it, and lay it at the altar . . . It was traditional during Sukkot for the high priest’s garment to either be sold for money for the Temple or to be given to the poor.
We know that Joseph and Mary were poor because of the sacrifice they gave in the Temple for Yeshua’s birth, which was two turtledoves. It was required that you sacrifice a lamb and a dove, but if you were poor, they allowed two doves. Doesn’t it make sense that Mary got the wrapping from Zechariah the priest, who got it from the Temple, where it came from the high priest in the Holy of Holies? As she was wrapping her baby, she was wrapping Yeshua in high priestly garments.”
“Meanly wrapped” indeed.
We also have an image of Mary alone, giving birth. Again, there’s nothing in the scriptures about that. Midwives—likely two—probably attended her. Learning about that ancient tradition always made me feel better about things. This marvelous piece by Brian Kershisnik (read full details here) shows all kind of help.
Nope, nope, and good gravy nope. The scripture in Matthew mentions “wise men.” Could have been two. Could have been 72. Just because they brought three gifts among them doesn’t mean there were three. Coming from the orient is also misleading. They came from “the east,” but the idea that they are oriental, and have names–Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar—are, according to Dr. Barker, “the product of…fertile imaginations.” As David Larsen writes,
“Barker notes that ‘from the East’ can also mean ‘from ancient times.’ The coming of the magi could have been a sign that the ancient ways were being restored. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh they brought were symbolic of the temple (all have important uses in the temple).”
And they didn’t visit Jesus at the stable (remember–cave). Matthew says they “came unto the house.” Jesus was a young child, no longer a “babe.” He was likely close to two-years-old, since King Herod, in his effort to destroy a future rival, kills all baby boys under age 2. Since it had been two years since the appearance of the star, it’d be very odd if Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were still hanging out in that cave/stable with/without a manger as we envision it with no hay in the stone trough.
So even though the song, “With Wondering Awe,” written in the mid 1800s in Boston, has the wise men hearing the angels singing (because that sound apparently carries for years) and seeking “the lowly manger,” that never happened. So take the wise men-who-aren’t-kings out of your nativity set. It’s a good thing they came later, because Joseph and Mary likely sold the costly gifts representative of his sacrificial death so they’d have enough supplies to hide in Egypt until Herod was nibbled to death by worms. (Thank you, Josephus, for that tidbit. Now, why don’t we have a representation of THAT in our nativities?)
Finally, the biggest lie of all in Christmas carols: the third verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Phillips Brooks, another 19th century author, clearly never was around when natural childbirth was occurring, or he never would have written, “How silently, how silently / The wondrous gift is giv’n.” As a mother who’s given birth nine times, I giggle every time I sing that line. And since I’ve shared this observation with a few friends, they now snicker in church during this hymn as well.
So back to my little Nativity scene. Years ago when I painted this set, I intended to make one for each of my children when they had kids. But I have to make a completely different one, now, with a cave, a stone trough, and a dozen wise men who somehow show up a couple years later at a house.
This will take some thought, obviously.
In the meantime, when we discuss our set on Christmas Eve, I spend an extra half hour explaining why everything is wrong, and on Sunday all of my teenage Sunday School students will hear this as well. Maybe one of them will know how I can create a stone trough in a realistic looking cave.
In the meantime, apologies if I’ve shattered your image of the Nativity and the songs we love to sing at Christmas.
But if you now see the birth of our Savior in a deeper, clearer way–you’re welcome. Frankly (or, Frankincense-ly), I now love the entire story even more.
“I don’t hold with traditions just for tradition’s sake.”
Relf Shin held up the call for tradition as strongly as his son did. They tried to drop it on its head as often as possible.
~The Forest at the Edge of the World, Book 1