Christmas is the most celebrated holiday of the year for Christians. The Christmas story is read more than probably any other section of scripture, so one would assume that believers would know it better than any other. But much of what we talk about in churches as being biblical truths are in fact never mentioned in scripture. Many of the beliefs we hold about Jesus' birth are from apocryphal works that we would never ascribe to if we were told where they came from (Apocryphal books are works deemed heretical, of late authorship, or questionable use by the early church that never made it into the canon). This essay will briefly cover the major myths about Christmas, and if possible where those myths came from. Most of these myths are perpetuated mainly through Christmas songs that talk about these notions and embed them into our minds. Accidently inaccurate nativity scenes also perpetuate some of these myths, which goes to show how little what we know about Christmas comes from what we read and instead comes from what we see and hear.
It should be noted that some of these things might have an element of truth (perhaps even be completely true in the case of a few) that was based down through oral tradition, but simply glossed over as unimportant by the gospel writers and not mentioned. Most, however, probably have no truth in them at all.
- 1 Angels were Singing to the Shepherds
- 2 Angels were at the Birth
- 3 Animals were at the Birth
- 4 Born in a Stable
- 5 Born in a Cave
- 6 A Bright Light Surrounded Jesus at Birth
- 7 Gifts Made Jesus Wealthy
- 8 An Innkeeper is Involved
- 9 Jesus did not Cry
- 10 Magi were at the Birth
- 11 Mary Felt no Pain at the Birth
- 12 Mary Rode in on a Donkey
- 13 Mary was an Official Virgin, or a Perpetual Virgin
- 14 Three Kings Came to Visit
- 15 The World Went Silence When Jesus was Born
- 16 The Star Was an Angel
Angels were Singing to the Shepherds
One angel appeared and told the shepherds the good news, and then a whole host burst in like they couldn't wait to let the solitary angel finish telling this spectacular news without help. We generally call this declaration of praise “the angels song” but the actual words do not mention singing at all, only crying out which is not song but a loud exclamation closer to what we would consider cheering or shouting. We have made it be a song but the words in Luke 2:13 actually says just that they “said” or “cried out.”
Angels were at the Birth
This is mainly based on a misunderstanding of the Biblical text. The Bible says that the angels appeared to the shepherds at the time of Jesus birth, but there is nothing mentioned about specifically being at the birth. The angels did not go with the shepherds as guides like the star did for the magi. The Arabic Infancy Gospel and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew both record angelic beings of some kind there.
Animals were at the Birth
This comes from several apocryphal gospels, especially the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. It also simply makes sense that if Jesus was born in a stable (possible, but not in the Bible) there would be animals there. But just as the Bible doesn't actually mention Jesus being born in a stable it also doesn't mention any animals.
Born in a Stable
We don't know that. The Bible only says that after he was born his parents put Jesus into a manger. This does not mean that they were in a stable, however, as it would have served as the cheapest and most convenient temporary crib away from their own home. The apocryphal gospel of Pseudo-Matthew says that Jesus was born in a cave and then several days later they moved into a stable. This is interpreted so that (Isaiah 1:3) is fulfilled, “the ox knows his master and the donkey his master's crib.”
Born in a Cave
This comes from logic mainly. The idea is accepted that Jesus was born in a stable, right or wrong. But wood was not common in Israel and so caves were used more often than not to house animals. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Arabic Infancy Gospel also mention Jesus being born in a cave. But the Bible itself does not mention this.
A Bright Light Surrounded Jesus at Birth
This is what we see in most icons and paintings from the early church, though most did not mean it literally. But the idea that Jesus did literally glow or that there was a bright light surrounding his birth has nothing to do with the gospels in the Bible. It is a Gnostic idea that somehow Jesus was not fully human, just parading as human. A lot of people simply couldn't believe that God could enter the world so quietly and so wrote the story their way with a lot more glamour. This can be found in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the Gospel of James, and the Arabic Infancy Gospel.
Gifts Made Jesus Wealthy
There really is no basis for this view. Many people seem to believe it for some reason, however. But immediately after receiving the gifts from the magi, Jesus' family fled to Egypt for quite a few years. Such an exodus would have been very expensive and so it is likely (though not mentioned scripturally) that the Magi's gifts were used to keep the family alive through those years. We do know that Jesus needed to get a coin from a fish's mouth in order to pay taxes later in life, however, so later in life he definitely was not wealthy.
An Innkeeper is Involved
There is an assumption that in the Bible Mary and/or Joseph have a conversation with an innkeeper. This comes from that there were no rooms “for them” in the inn. The assumption is that they were told this by an innkeeper. This makes sense and is quite probable, but is not contained in scripture. It is possible that everyone simply knew this to be the case, or that everyone knew that no unmarried pregnant woman would be welcome at the inn, openings or no. The Bible emphasizes "for them" over "no room," possibly indicating that they asked all over and were turned down (the imperfect tense of the verb would seem to back this up as well).
The scriptural emphasis on that verse is that in a land where you were expected to be hospitable to everyone, even those you don't know, these two young people were so shunned they couldn't find a place to stay in their ancestral hometown where everyone was distant family. Not even the inn (mainly for gentiles and) wouldn't take them.
Jesus did not Cry
I cannot find the book that this is from, but there is no root for it in the Bible. From all accounts Jesus was completely normal in his humanity. And normal babies cry. This idea that he was somehow less than fully human to make room for his godhood is heresy. All babies cry, that's how their lungs start working, with a good cry. Jesus cried, because Jesus lived.
Magi were at the Birth
Perpetuated mainly through nativity sets, we often assume that the Magi were actually saw Christ on the day of his birth along with the shepherds, but that was when they began their journey. From the age that Herod executed all the children of that age and under, it was probably one to two years after Jesus' birth that the magi finally arrived, especially as the Bible specifically mentions that they were now in a house.
Mary Felt no Pain at the Birth
The idea is that there was compensation to Mary for birthing Jesus, that something a mundane as pain or blood can't have been involved in God's birth. This is found in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. The Bible, on the other hand, without using details makes a point of emphasizing how normal and unremarkable everything was unless you looked closely. That means pain, mess, the whole nine yards.
Mary Rode in on a Donkey
This is one of the most deeply ingrained myths, but fortunately one of the least damaging. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Gospel of James makes a point of saying that Mary rode on a donkey, but the gospels in the Bible do not mention this at all. It is a minor point, but illustrates well how so much of what we think about Christmas comes from outside of scripture.
Mary was an Official Virgin, or a Perpetual Virgin
There are an amazing amount of myths about Mary. Most center around the idea that she too had to have been something amazingly special in order to birth the Messiah. One version is that she was set aside as she was born to be an official virgin and basically lived in the temple. This story tried to make her virginity less questioned and more certain, and hence Jesus' miraculous birth confirmed. It is found in the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary and the Gospel of James. This has no roots in the Bible as we know nothing about Mary until she was engaged to Joseph.
Another version, that the Roman Catholic Church ascribes to, is that after Jesus' birth Mary continued to remain a virgin even after Jesus' birth. The Bible only says that Joseph “had no union with her until she gave birth to a son” (Matthew 1:25). This implies they slept together afterwards. The idea that Mary was a perpetual Virgin comes from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.
Three Kings Came to Visit
We sing about it, we preach on it, we assume that there were three kings who came to worship Jesus. But not only does the Bible not say they were kings (it says they were magi, magicians, probably Zoroastrian astrologers) it also does not mention any number of magi coming. The notion that there were three comes from the fact that the Bible mentions there being three gifts. The assumption we make is that each magi brought a gift but there is nothing to suggest this interpretation in scripture itself. Not even the apocryphal works mention this idea.
The World Went Silence When Jesus was Born
This is a myth popularized in the song “Silent Night” but is not found in scripture, or even most apocryphal works. The idea is that when Jesus was born the entire world went silent out or respect for what God was doing and because it was such a big thing. Again, this goes against the scriptural notion that everyone passed this birth by when it happened
The Star Was an Angel
You hear mention of this from time to time, that the star which appeared over Jesus was in fact an angel in star form. There isn't even a hint of this in scripture, and instead comes from the Arabic Infancy Gospel.
These are some links to most of the apocryphal gospels in question, from the NNU's Wesley Center.
- Arabic Infancy Gospel: http://wesley.nnu.edu/biblical_studies/noncanon/gospels/infarab.htm
- Gospel of Nativity of Mary http://wesley.nnu.edu/biblical_studies/noncanon/gospels/natmary.htm
- Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew http://wesley.nnu.edu/biblical_studies/noncanon/gospels/psudomat.htm
- The Gospel of James http://wesley.nnu.edu/biblical_studies/noncanon/gospels/gosjames.htm