What Does the Bible Say About the First Christmas?
For a long while, Christmas has been about pageantry, beautiful lights, gaudy decorations, romantic trysts by the fire, sleigh bells, and snow. Modern Christmas movies are seldom about the reality of the first Christmas. Even for those who recognize Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, there is still a tendency to embellish that first Christmas.
The beautiful hymn "Silent Night" romanticizes the birth of Jesus, claiming that "All is calm, all is bright." It wasn't calm and bright, and it wasn't sanitary. Mary and Jesus didn't have glowing halos, and the animals didn't look on in wonder. Nevertheless, the first Christmas remains a sacred event. This article aims to strip away the modern embellishments of the story and highlight its crude and humble reality as detailed in the Bible.
Ordinary Mary's Extraordinary Visitor
Mary was a young teenage girl from a poor family. They lived in Nazareth, an obscure little village off the beaten path. Mary was always curiously pondering things in her heart and trying to figure things out. Her heart was a treasure chest where she stored all these ponderings and the answers as they came along. One gathers from the Bible that she was a devout worshiper of God. She was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter by trade and a good and honorable man. Most likely, it was an arranged marriage, as was the custom at that time.
One day, Mary was going about her day. Perhaps she was doing chores, milking a cow, kneading dough, feeding chickens, or fetching water. It was just another day. But out of nowhere, the angel Gabriel appeared to her. And do you know what he said to this unassuming young girl who lived an average life in a small village? He said, "Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!" (Luke 1:28)
She was no doubt startled, but she was also very troubled, so she considered what manner of greeting this was. Gabriel knew her anxiety and told her not to be afraid because God's favor was on her. Then he told her of an unfathomable reality to come: "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom, there will be no end." (Luke 1:31–33)
What? This made no sense. Mary questioned him: "How can this be since I do not know a man?"
Gabriel responded, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God." (Luke 1:35)
Remarkably, sweet young pondering Mary said, "I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” She embraced the message despite the fact that it would create quite a scandal for a young virgin girl to become pregnant before marriage. It would bring shame to Joseph and her family and break their hearts. But then again, she was talking to a great angel. Perhaps she didn't think of the ramifications. Young Mary was a trusting, humble servant of the Lord. She believed.
Imagine how Joseph and Mary's families must have felt upon learning Mary was pregnant. Her story was outrageously inconceivable. Joseph wasn't about to go through with the marriage, but being an honorable man, he did not want to disgrace Mary publicly by divorcing her, so he was going to sever the betrothal secretly.
God spoke to him in a dream and told him everything Mary said was true and that he was to go ahead and marry her and call the Child Jesus. So despite the hard things they would face, he obeyed and married Mary. He was a devoted husband and father.
Jesus' Unsanitary Birth
There really was some hustle and bustle on that first Christmas. Caesar Augustus had called for a worldwide census. People were to go to the places of their ancestral origins. Both Mary and Joseph were descendants of David, so they set out for Bethlehem, traveling along with many other pilgrims. It was a four-to-seven-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Mary was nine months pregnant, so maybe it took extra time. They walked. Mary may have been riding a donkey, but the Bible doesn't specify. It was an arduous journey. They slept under the stars or in crude shelters of some sort. Their feet were tired and dirty. Being that far into her pregnancy, Mary must have been miserable.
Mary was in labor by the time they arrived in Bethlehem. The town was swollen and nearly bursting with humanity, and there was nowhere to stay so Mary could give birth. Joseph was frantic to find a place for them. The inn was full, but they were offered the stable. Think of all the people filling the town. The stable was probably full and dirty. There was not much time to clean it up. Jesus was born to the smell of manure and the sound of the bawling of animals on a dirt floor and not-so-fresh hay. His crib was a feeding trough. I doubt they scrubbed it with bleach. It was cold. It stunk. It was noisy with all the pilgrims outside, and the animals were only feet away, munching, bawling, and grunting.
Joseph had to play midwife. How unnerving it must have been for him. If only he could have found her a clean room with someone to tend to her. Poor Mary must have been scared and wanting her mother. Mary went through labor like all women. She cried and grunted with the contractions. There was the usual afterbirth mess to clean up. This wasn't what Mary and Joseph had planned.
As a mother, I know of that magical moment when your baby arrives. All the pain is forgotten, and you are in wonder. Jesus' birth was wondrous to His mother and earthly father, despite the environment—doubly so because they had been told He was the Savior of the world.
The Dirty Shepherds' Discovery
Out in the fields above Bethlehem that night, shepherds were watching over their flocks. Shepherds were despised, according to many historians. They were poor, dirty, scroungy, stinky, uneducated outcasts who lacked social graces. But I'll let Luke tell the story:
"Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: 'Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!' " (Luke 2:15–19)
The sky above the fields of Bethlehem was alive with pageantry. God chose for these glorious beings to herald the glory of the newborn King to a bunch of scruffy shepherds. I love that. God had a fondness for shepherds because we hear about them all throughout the Bible. Adam and Eve's son Abel was a shepherd, as were Moses, David, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Those shepherd times prepared them for greater things in the future. Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd and referred to his followers as His sheep.
The shepherds, stunned by what they had seen, left their flocks and went into town and found Jesus just as the angel had told them. They weren't repulsed that Jesus was in a barn in an animal trough. That was normal to them. But they were in awe of that little baby because He was the Savior to all people. "All people" included them. What hope and wonder they had. They were so excited that they ran about Bethlehem telling everyone about Christ the Lord being born.
Blood on the Streets of Bethlehem
The Bible doesn't give an exact timeline of when the wise men from the East came, but it was not at the stable. Scholars say it was days, months, or even a year or two after Jesus' birth. The Bible also does not specify that there were three wise men. It says "some" wise men. We often think of these wise men from the east as wearing royal garb. It is more likely that they were in traveling clothes. They traveled hundreds of miles to find Jesus.
The wise men somehow knew about the prophecies of the Messiah's birth. Scholars say they may have been familiar with Daniel's prophecies because Daniel was in Persia. Regardless of how they knew, they followed the star that would lead them to the King of kings. They stopped in Jerusalem to ask where the newborn King was because they wanted to worship Him. This shook up King Herod and the whole city of Jerusalem. Herod felt threatened at the news of another king. He asked the religious leaders where the Messiah was to be born, and they told him Bethlehem. Then he spoke with the wise men and told them to inform him when they found Jesus so he too could worship Him. But his plans were to murder Him.
The weary but excited wise men found where the child was and gave Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These were gifts one might offer to a king. They were overjoyed. The Lord warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod and instead go a different route. Herod was furious. He called for the murder of every boy in the area two years old and younger. A lot of blood was spilled, and there was wailing, grief, and sorrow.
Joseph was warned in a dream to leave and take his family to Egypt so Jesus would be spared. They fled in the middle of the night.
The Crudeness of Christmas
Christmas was crude. It involved ordinary people, poverty, scandal, travel on foot, a lack of housing, the Messiah being born in a barn, dirty shepherds, treachery, the mass murder of children, and a clandestine getaway to save the baby Messiah from Herod's sword.
The Christmas story is glorious because, in all that crudeness, Christ the Lord came into the world through God's extraordinary ways. Mary and Joseph took Jesus home to Nazareth to live an ordinary life. They went on to have more children. At age 12, Mary and Joseph began to see the signs of their son's divine wisdom and knowledge. Still, until he was thirty years old, he worked as a humble carpenter in an ordinary town with an ordinary family.
When Jesus began his ministry, it wasn't all flowers and unicorns. After He was baptized, the Holy Spirit led Him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. For forty days and nights, He did not eat or drink. He spent that time in prayer. The devil showed up and tried to tempt him. Jesus, of course, ended up the victor because He is God.
He experienced fatigue and hunger, crowds followed Him around like Paparazzi, and His disciples could be difficult. He was hounded by the religious leaders who were always accusing Him or testing Him so they could trip Him up and kill Him. They finally succeeded. Christ died on a cross, and it was a long, agonizing, humiliating death. But He went to it willingly because He was thinking of you and me.
We cannot earn our way to eternal life with God. Only heaven's perfect Lamb could do that. But He did not remain a dead Savior. He rose and now prepares a place for those who choose to repent of their sins and give their lives to Him.
Think of it—Jesus was God, sitting at the right hand of the Father in glorious heaven, and he came down to earth as a human baby. He was fully God and fully man. He went from a throne to a dung-filled stable and a sin-sick world because He loves us.
I love this passage from Hebrews 12. The previous chapter, fondly called "The Hall of Faith," tells about the faith of all the great men and women of God from the Old Testament—the great cloud of witnesses. And chapter 12 begins with this:
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up."
Thank You, Jesus, for all You've done for us.
© 2020 Lori Colbo
Ann Carr from SW England on December 19, 2020:
It is important to remember that it certainly wasn't all tinsel and decorations! The true focus and value of Christmas seems to be sidelined by materialism so your reminder is pertinent and brings us down to earth.
Happy Christmas, Lori, and I hope 2021 brings you good health and happiness.
Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on December 19, 2020:
I loved reading about Jesus' birth and life. I am a believer and the fact that Jesus died on a cross for my sins humbles me. We are human, we sin, but we are forgiven when we pray and ask for forgiveness. Your writing is very inspiring. Thank you for sharing.
Alnajda Kadi from Tirana Albania on December 19, 2020:
Very inspiring, Happy Christmas!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 19, 2020:
Merry Christmas to you!
manatita44 from london on December 19, 2020:
Nice take. We don't look at things this way too often. After all, we love the pleasant and negate the dark. We do not choose the way of the cross and we do not see the omnipresent in Covid-19. We hide in our shadows, fear, loneliness and desires ... our insecurities... while we blame the world. Just saying.
Yet, I'm an optimistic Lover, and God has given me a Heart of beauty and a wonderful world. Struggles too! What good parent wouldn't admonish the child? Our Lord of Justice, as well as compassion, is infinitely more merciful! Much Gratitude
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 19, 2020:
I truly enjoyed reading your article about Jesus and how rough the birth was at that time. It was crude, and their feet were dirty, etc. I can's even imagine that long journey. Thank you for sharing this wonderful article at Christmas time, Lori.
John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on December 19, 2020:
A very interesting article in time for Christmas, but you are right, the first one was very crude. We don't really acknowledge it at all do we? Thank you for sharing, Lori.