The Real Christmas Story: how well do you know it?

The count is on. It’s two weeks until Christmas! The decorations are going up, the light shows are starting, and the community Christmas carols fill the weekends. Like most people, I grew up with “real” Christmas story depicted by the classical nativity scene where Jesus was born in a manger in a stable…that’s how Luke records it, right?

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

— Luke 2:1–7 (ESV)

Right there, at the end of the passage (v. 7), “There was no place for them in the inn.” They came late at night; there were no vacancies in the inn; and, with no other available options they find themselves in a stable giving birth to the baby Jesus in a hole in the ground (ie. a manager).

Manga Bible on Luke 2:1-7

Admittedly, we inherited the Christmas story from Church tradition. Still, how is it that after all our efforts to understand the Bible within its historical, cultural, and social context we completely missed this in our evaluations?

So, let’s just look over this story in finer detail.

The Real Christmas Story

1. The census

So, the first part gives us the details of the final location. Caesar Augustus decrees a census requiring the peoples of the Roman Empire to return to their hometown. In the case of Joseph, it was Bethlehem, the city of David. So, they went up from their town of residence, Nazareth, to Joseph’s family hometown, Bethlehem. Got it?

So, let’s get this straight—Joseph goes back to his hometown of Bethlehem and he looks for an inn? Right.

2. The birth

The next part of the story relates to the birth of Jesus. In most tellings of the story, Joseph and Mary arrive just in time to give birth to the baby Jesus. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is around 130km (80 miles). We don’t have details of the journey, whether it was on foot or on donkey, together or in a larger group. So, let’s just say for arguments sake, it took them about a week to travel that distance.

My wife and I just celebrated the arrival of a baby girl. I think I can be fairly confident to say that travelling while you’re heavily pregnant isn’t a great idea. Furthermore, if you’re due to give birth and in the middle of labour pains, it’s unlikely you’re going to be moving anywhere quickly. So, thankfully, the story doesn’t actually go the way we remember it.

Again, we seem to have overlooked a few simple words from Luke (v. 4), “And Joseph also went up from Galilee…” It’s in past tense (Gk. aorist tense); this assumes their arrival. Furthermore, Luke records (v. 6), “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” So they didn’t arrive just in time for Jesus’ birth, they were there in Bethlehem ready and waiting for his arrival.

3. The manger

So, the final bit of the story decorated by generations of nativity scenes is the manger, in the middle of a stable, surrounded by animals (oh, and the glowing halo around the Virgin Mary and Jesus’ head)? That’s what Luke says, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger…”

Right? If you weren’t in first-century Palestine… You see, in a typical Palestinian home, it’s a one-room dwelling. The standard home consisted of a living area, mangers built into the floor for feeding the animals (usually at night), and a small area lower than the living area for the family cow or donkey at night.

This layout was still used in recent times (well, at least, in 1857) as observed by a missionary in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine:

It is my impression that the birth actually took place in an ordinary house of some common peasant, and that the baby was laid in one of the mangers, such as are still found in the dwellings of farmers in this region.

— William Thomson, The Land and the Book, Vol. II (New York: Harper and Brothers, c. 1858, 1871), p. 503.

Diagram of Palestinian peasant home

So, there’s at least two things the traditional story gets right: 1) Jesus was born in a manger, and, 2) animals were probably present.

4. The inn

So, one final detail. The whole reason for Jesus’ birth in a manger is the lack of vacancies in the inn (v. 7), “There was no place for them in the inn.” Except, given everything else we’ve mentioned, it seems a little odd. Why would Joseph go to the inn in his hometown?

This is where the technicalities of language and translation become problematic. The Greek word used here for ‘inn’ (kataluma) can also be translated ‘guest room’. That’s how it’s used and translated in two other passages where the same word occurs (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11).

The Real Christmas Story

So, let’s put all of this together.

  1. Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown.
  2. Joseph and Mary were already in Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth.
  3. In a typical peasant Palestinian home, the manger was inside the house.
  4. The word for ‘inn’ can also be translated ‘guest room’.

In the traditional Christmas story, Jesus is rapidly born into a setting of privacy and seclusion from the rest of the world. He is hidden in a stable, no less, in the manger only to be found by shepherds and wise men from the East guided by the directions of angels and an unusually bright star.

Instead, we find a very different picture with all that we’ve learnt. Jesus was born in a timely manner surround not only by his parents, Joseph and Mary, but also Joseph’s extended family. His parents, uncles and aunties, brothers and sisters, cousins, and all the rest. I can only imagine the atmosphere! Yes, Jesus was placed in a manger, probably with some animals nearby, but only for lack of space in the guest room with all the other relatives there.

The Implications of the Real Christmas Story

So, how does this change the implication of the Christmas story we’ve grown to know and love? Here’s two thoughts.

1. Christmas is truly a family affair

There is a level of sentimentality in the traditional Christmas story, Jesus born in solitude and welcomed into the world only by his parents, animals, lowly shepherds, and some wise men (by the way, who said there was only three men?). This picture is completely dismantled and replaced with a picture of joyous celebration of family welcoming the birth of a new member to their family. Christmas is no longer a token family affair, the Christmas story gives us genuine reason for the family affair.

As we celebrate the birth of the Christ, it is not an isolated affair. It is one where the whole family, not just our immediate family, comes together. What about those who have no family? Or, whose family is far away? Is there room for them? The Christmas story gives us new meaning and greater reason for our celebration this season with our family, friends, and community.

2. Christmas is a celebration of the ordinary

While either Christmas story highlights the extraordinary entrance of the Son of God, Jesus, through ordinary means. Though, it becomes even more ordinary when you take away the rapid birth, the isolated stable, and no room in an inn and replace it with a natural birth, surrounded more by family than a flock of animals, and in the home of family.

As we celebrate the birth of the Christ, it is not one marked by unusual incidents, but a rather ordinary affair. As Christians, how do we reflect this in our celebrations? Do we need to pressure ourselves with the endless decorations and extravagant food? Do we need the manicured Christmas services with the perfect selection of Christmas carols? Is this ordinarily how we do things? I wonder how much more special our celebrations would be without all the fuss and stress.

For more information about the real Christmas story and a deeper look at the historical, social, cultural background of Jesus’ birth, take a look at The manger and the inn by Dr. Kenneth Bailey.