Christmas is a time of festive cheer, gift-giving and good food enjoyed in the company of friends and family. But for devout Christians around the world, Christmas is also a time for reflection and appreciation for the gift of life.
Because today, billions of people celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ – the Christian messiah and son of God born by the virgin Mary.
The biblical account of Jesus’ birth is described in the gospels of Luke and Matthew.
Matthew 1:18-19 reads: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.”
There are, however, many discrepancies between the biblical, historical and modern interpretations of Christmas that miss the mark of what really happened more than 2,000 years ago.
Reverend Dr Ian Paul spoke to Express.co.uk about some of the myths and inaccuracies of how Christmas is celebrated today.
Christmas Day celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ by the virgin Mary
Christmas day: Jesus is believed to have been born in a manger
Jesus Christ was born on December 25:
Although there is no historical record of a baby named Jesus being born on a specific date, Christians have chosen December 25 as the day of Christmas.
Some historians have suggested the date of Christmas was adopted from pagan rituals known as Saturnalia, observed around this time of the year.
Dr Paul, however, is certain the Saturnalia claim is myth itself and the date of December 25 has a different origin.
The theologian said: “There has been much debate about these issues. The idea that Christian ‘took over’ the feast of Saturnalia or sol invictus is actually a myth, first propagated in the 12th century.
“In fact, the origin of this date, testified in the fourth century but probably going back to around 200, was from the idea that martyrs and prophets died on the same day they were conceived.
Evidence is that Joseph did the honourable thing and acted as the dutiful husband and father
“Those who believed that Jesus died on the 25th March counted on nine months to settle on 25th December as the date of his birth.”
Dr Paul added it is also very symbolic the birth of Jesus is celebrated in December, a typically dark and cold month.
He said: “You’ve got this idea of Jesus being born, of Jesus being a life – the true life of the world – coming into a dark world.
“The light of the world bringing light into the darkness and then the famous verse, ‘the word became the flesh and dwelt amongst us’.”
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Jesus Christ was born in a manager, in a stable
Nativity scenes played out by schoolchildren all over the world always portray the birth of Christ in a small stable and next to farm animals.
But according to Dr Paul, this is a modern interpretation or rather misinterpretation of the accounts penned in the Bible.
Similarly, the theologian noted Jesus was not visited by three wise men upon his birth but they did indeed “bring three gifts”.
Dr Paul said: “I think that the main inaccuracy in the way we portray the Christmas story is that we overlay on it all our own assumptions about the scene, without really being aware of the first-century cultural context.
“This starts with basic assumptions, like the notion that animals live separately from people, whereas in the first century the two would be naturally intermixed.
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“So if the newborn Jesus was placed in an animal feed trough, then that must have been ‘away’ from the home, whereas it would, in fact, have been at the centre of family life.
“This then leads to the ideas we impose on the story, that Mary must have been shamed and outcast, and that Jesus from the beginning must have been rejected and alone.”
In Dr Paul’s opinion, however, nothing could be further from the truth.
He added: “First-century culture majored on hospitality; the birth of the child would have been central to the community; the women would have gathered around to act as midwives; and all the evidence is that Joseph did the honourable thing and acted as the dutiful husband and father.”
Christmas is the most important Christian celebration of the year
Each year, starting around November, there is a big push to celebrate Christmas.
Radio stations belt out classic Christmas hits, supermarkets roll out the staples of the Christmas dinner table and the streets are lined with tinsel and colourful lights.
But the most important date in the Christian calendar falls on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox – Easter.
Dr Paul said: “It’s because you can’t really sell people chocolate crosses with dead people hanging on them, can you? It doesn’t have the same commercial appeal.”
Instead, Dr Paul argued Christmas is such a big celebration today because of how commercialised it has become in the last century.
He said: “Once people can make money from something, then that is a great motivator.
“At the basic level, most people outside the church have no idea that the period running up to Christmas is the season of Advent – and that the Christmas season only begins on Christmas day.
“But there is no money to be made by waiting until Christmas to start selling Christmas stuff.”
What has happened over the years, according to Dr Paul, is historical facts have influenced certain traditions, which have then become commercialised.
Dr Paul said: “It’s a real sadness as a Christian minister.”
Dr Ian Paul is a minster in the Church of England, a biblical scholar and runs the blog Psephizo.com.