There is every reason to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but be aware of the danger of cultural distortions
“The biblical Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are wonderful in their beauty and simplicity … but we have embellished the biblical stories with traditions and customs that have been collected over the centuries.”
I ONCE OBSERVED a little child when she was given a present. The wrapping paper was quickly removed. e box was opened. And she saw her present. Her eyes lit up like any child’s would do when given a present. She took her gift and played with it for a while. But soon, her present was discarded on the floor as her attention shifted to the box and the wrapping paper.
I was amused to see her more interested and happy with the box and the colourful wrapping paper than with the actual gift that was given to her.
We may laugh, but we often do the same at Christmas time. We celebrate Christmas with gusto, but our attention is often given more to the boxes and wrapping papers than to the actual Gift of Christmas. I am, of course, not talking about the gifts we spend hours and days to get and exchange at Christmas. I am referring to the greatest gift – the gift of God’s Son, that Christmas celebrates.
The biblical Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are wonderful in their beauty and simplicity. ese are the stories that are frequently remembered, acted out, sang about and preached on at Christmas. All this is wonderful, but we have embellished the biblical stories with traditions and customs that have been collected over the centuries. Just a few examples would be in order.
We sing about the “three kings” who visited the baby, but Scripture does not mention that they were kings; neither are we sure that there were three. Perhaps the number developed because there were three kinds of gifts mentioned (Mt. 2:11). ese men were magi who were practitioners of astrology and alchemy. e word “magician” is related to the word “magi”.
Is it true that when Jesus was about to be born, Joseph and Mary could not find any room at the local inns? Were they turned away by some heartless innkeeper? Or perhaps the innkeeper, with some pity, suggested that they spend the night at the stable?
Such ideas are put to rest by noting that Joseph and Mary probably stayed in some relative’s house. It was an aﬀront to a relative if one were to stay at an inn; it was likely that there were no inns in Bethlehem like our inns or hotels today.
The Greek word (kataluma) that is translated as “inn” in Luke 2:7 actually means “guest room”. It is the same word used by Luke in Luke 22:11, where it is translated as “guest room”. e word for “inn” is a diﬀerent one (pandacheion), as in the story of the Good Samaritan, where it refers to a roadside inn for travellers (Luke 10:34).
It is likely that Jesus was born in a house (Mt. 2:11) of a relative, and because there was no space in the guest room, Mary and Joseph spent the night where the manger was. It was common to have the manger not in a separate stable but in the main living room, where the animals were brought in at night, or in a backroom of the house.
ere are many other Christmas “facts” that may not be in line with the scriptural accounts, for example, that the angels had wings. Christmas celebrations are often embellished and inaccurate versions of what we actually read in the Bible. Worse are the popular cultural distortions that have been added on (such as white Christmases, Santa Claus, Christmas trees, mistletoe, turkeys …) that are nice to observe – so long as they don’t obliterate the real reason for celebrating Christmas. We are often so obsessed with the wrapping paper and the packing that we pay scant attention to the real Christmas Gift.
It is nice to celebrate a Matthean or Lukan Christmas (using the stories in these Gospels) but we must be aware of the danger of cultural distortions and the wrapping paper syndrome. It is for this reason that there are Christians who don’t celebrate Christmas. Theirs is a stark “Markan Christmas” – if we can use that term. Mark does not have any Christmas story or infancy narrative. But we do not need to reject Christmas celebrations. For there is every reason to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus, the Incarnation, and God’s Gift to us.
Perhaps, for a change, we could have a Johannine Christmas. John does not have any heart-warming Christmas stories but He describes the Incarnation in wonderful focus and clarity (Jn. 1). He goes to the beginnings where we see Jesus as God with God (v. 1). en we see the creation (“ rough him all things were made”, v.3). Then we note the darkness (when sin entered the world). Then, the Incarnation – Jesus is Word become flesh (v. 14) and light in the darkness (v. 5).
Jesus is God’s unique Gift to us; He is the “One and Only” (v. 14, 18). He is God’s indescribable Gift to us (2 Cor.9:15). Nothing that we give and receive at Christmas can match God’s Gift to us. He literally “pitched His tent among us” (v.14) and came as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (v. 29).
Tragically God’s Gift was not well-received. is “world did not recognise him” and “his own did not receive him” (v. 10-11). Yet the promise remains, that all who received God’s Gift would become the children of God (v. 12).
The Johannine account points to the Gift of Christmas without any distractions which could be sentimentalised or embellished with cultural and popular practices. ere is just the Gift; no packaging, no wrapping paper – so that we do not miss the Gift that is extended to us.
Today we face the danger of wrapping the Christmas Gift with the glittering paper of cultural and sentimentalised trappings and commercial glitz – that serve to turn our attention away from the Gift of Christmas. May we not be like the little child who ignored the gift and played with the trappings and wrappings. Rather, may we receive into our hearts the best (and essential) Gift of Christmas from our Father in heaven. at is the best thing that can happen at Christmas.
My wife and I wish you and your loved ones a wonderful and meaningful Christmas.