Your Christmas probably won’t be “traditional” this year . . .

I predict that this Christmas will be different for you in some way. Either it’ll mark a “last time” of some sort, or a “first time” of another. Perhaps this year someone significant is missing—either gone for a time or have passed away—or maybe someone new has joined your circle of family and friends. New baby, new marriage, departed grandparents or children . . .

But one thing’s for sure: this Christmas won’t be like ones in the past.

How do I know this? Because over the years I’ve discovered that it’s rare to have a “typical” or “traditional” Christmas. While each holiday tends to be happy, there are moments of sadness: sudden, unexpected, poignant sadness when you realize nothing will ever be quite the same.

And here’s how I recommend you deal with happy-sad Christmas moments: let them happen. Let the tears trickle as you remember how things can never happen again. Mourn the difference, remember how you wished it could be again, think about what a “proper” Christmas is supposed to look like (we all have those unrealistic images in our heads, don’t we?).

AND THEN move on and embrace what’s new and good, and realize that maybe these should be considered sad-happy moments.

I was filled with these mournful/joyful thoughts as two of my sons attempted to put lights on the house the other evening. My oldest son, who’s 22, eagerly rooted through the Christmas bins and discovered several light strands I wasn’t going to use.

“Then I’m taking these outside!” he declared. I’d forgotten that he loved to put lights on the house, because the last time he did was five long years ago, before the army, before his LDS mission and his stint working the oil fields of North Dakota.

But this year—THIS year—he was home to make my house glow.

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And I was overwhelmed with happy sadness by that, because I know that next year—NEXT year—he won’t be putting lights on my house. He’ll be married in a few months, and then we’ll be moving 2700 miles away from him.

But today, I held on to the happy part. He dragged his reluctant 16-year-old brother to help him as the sun set and the cold grew to get lights on top of the snowy house. “Come on. Outside with you,” he ordered his brother away from his computer game.

Age 16, grumbling as he put on his snow pants, said, “Why am I doing this?”

“Because,” age 22 told him, “it’ll teach you to be a man!”  (Since he’s been in the army, age 22 has decided that everything unpleasant teaches you to be a man.)

“But this isn’t necessary,” age 16 countered.

“Yes, it is,” insisted age 22. “We have to prove our house is better than the neighbors! Up the ladder, now.”

I grabbed my camera, knowing that this would likely never happen again, my two sons squabbling as they put up lights for the first time together, for the last time together.

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(Another reason he didn’t enjoy being up there was because I was taking pictures.)

Nearly every Christmas has been something different. I realized some time ago that we don’t know how to have a “proper” Christmas. A cursory count has revealed that we have:

  • Celebrated Christmas in 12 different houses over the past 28 years;
  • Once had Christmas at the beach (that felt so wrong);
  • Twice celebrated Christmas a full week AFTER the 25th, because some family was working in other states (yes, the presents just stayed under the tree until the 31st, and I got all the Christmas candy on sale);
  • Once celebrated Christmas a full week BEFORE the 25th, because we’d be out of town during the holiday (yes, we opened everything very early);
  • Three times have had newborns at Christmas (ok, one came four days later; and yes, fully 1/3 of our nine children have been born in December. I have no sense of planning whatsoever.)
  • Three times had our lives in boxes during Christmas, and had to search a storage unit for a bin of decorations to make the temporary home feel like ours again;
  • Three times had in-laws staying with us;
  • And this year, we will have a teenage Chinese national staying with us to experience a crowded, noisy Christian Christmas (not intending to traumatize the boy, but it’ll likely happen anyway).

“Traditional” and “proper” don’t really show up to our Christmases. One of the years when we had postponed Christmas, I was hospitalized with hemorrhaging on the 28th of December. The nurse treating me said it was a good thing the emergency happened after Christmas, and I told her that we still hadn’t celebrated yet; we would open all our presents in two days. Then she gave me morphine for the pain, and I died right after that because no one knew I had a deadly reaction to morphine, and the ER staff kindly revived me again, and I spent our postponed Christmas laying on the couch at home eating steak to try to rebuild my depleted iron stores.

Not all Christmas activities are worth making into annual traditions.

We start new traditions and forget old ones, bring in new family, and say farewell to others. Bid goodbye to beloved houses, set up the tree in new places. And that’s all ok.

I took these photos eight years ago at an extended family Christmas gathering, and knew then that it’d be the last one. My sister, mother, and father in these photos have all since passed away.

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Even as I reviewed the photos that night, I began to weep, knowing that was one of the last times our family would all be together, and that Christmas would look different in the future.

Occasionally I envy some friends and neighbors whose Christmases are the same every year. They always visit grandparents, or have a cousins gathering, or spend the day with extended family doing the same things. Solid, reliable traditions . . .

But not us. One year, we skyped with my husband who was in three states away as we opened half our presents. It was like having Christmas with an Artificial Intelligence unit in the house.

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This year we’ll hurry through opening presents in the morning, then drive two hours down to our daughter’s church to attend the service with them, and have a chili dinner at their apartment afterward. We’ll never do all of that again, either, because we’re all parting ways next year, I have no idea when I’ll celebrate Christmas with my two grandchildren again. We haven’t been grandparents long enough to establish any traditions that our moves can destroy. Happy-sad.

The other night as my sons called me to come outside for inspection, I looked up and smiled at this new tradition that would happen only once: brothers lighting the roof together. They plugged in the lights, and there was a minor Clark Griswold moment when age 22’s section over the porch didn’t come on. But age 16 smugly announced, “Yet all of my lights are working, thank you very much.”

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As he descended the ladder, loudly muttering that none of this was necessary, and age 22 went back to inspecting his dark half strand, I thought to myself, “Yes, all of this was necessary . . . for me.” Only moms know how vital it is to see our kids working together, creating a brief yet deeply felt memory that maybe only mom will remember.

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After only a minute of working on his disobedient strand, age 22 got the rest of his lights on, and I cheered.

Some traditions happen only once.

This year, remember that there’s no such thing as a “traditional” or “typical” Christmas. When you find your celebration taking an unexpected or sad turn, embrace it and feel through it. The entire reason we celebrate Christmas is to remember that Christ came as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” He understands our joys and our sorrows, and he came to wipe away all our tears.

John 4:5–29, Christ accepts water from a Samaritan woman

Let him. That’s really the only proper way to celebrate Christmas.

“In the meantime, enjoy the tradition.” ~Book 5, Safety Assured Leaving East of Medicetti

The nativity is wrong! And we can blame Christmas carols!

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.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAHere 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.

An, old traditional icon. Creating an old–and likely incorrect–tradition.

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

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Sorry, donkey. You may not have been there. (And I even glued your ear back on.)

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.” GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

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No, I don’t know why I painted him with a blue blanket. Maybe that’s what was in the Holly Babies book where I copied these pictures from.

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.

“Little Lamb,” by Jenedy Paige

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.

The Stories Behind 12 Pieces of LDS Art

“Nativity,” by Brian Kershisnik

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.

Now, about those “three kings.” We can blame John Henry Hopkins, Jr. who wrote “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” who decided 1) there were three; 2) they were kings, and 3) they were from the orient. GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA

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. GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

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Wildly inaccurate: Mary and Joseph weren’t 4 and 8, respectively. But still a sweet representation of the Nativity.

“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