I think most of us can agree that Christmas time is the best time of the year. Peppermint everything, snowflakes galore, radio stations filled with the cheeriest of tunes, an endless supply of ugly Christmas sweater.
Really, the month of December is the red Starburst of months. But it’s always important to stop and reflect on the real reason for the season. As a first year seminary student and an avid lover of all things Christmas, I’ve had the pleasure of learning a number of things about the birth of Jesus that I found too beautiful not to share.
The following fascinating information is based off the writings of world-renown biblical scholar (and my amazing New Testament professor this past semester) Craig Keener, whose The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament has sold more than half a million copies.
So as you are snuggling up by the fire in your Christmas footie pajamas and stirring your homemade hot chocolate with a sweet smelling peppermint stick, here are some fun facts about the Christmas story to make your appreciation that God came to Earth that much sweeter:
Jesus Was Probably Born in the Spring, not the Winter
Once the good ol’ winter months starting approaching, the pagans in Greco-Roman times feared that the days were getting shorter because the sun god was mad at them. In order to appease this infamous sun god, they would have these giant R-rated feasts and festivals.
Thus, according to Keener, “Christians may have later adopted December 25 as a time to celebrate Christmas in part to [fight against this] pagan Roman festival scheduled shortly before that time.”
Always better to worship the Son of God than the sun god, right? To put it in easy-to-grasp terms, you wouldn’t be throwing back peppermint mocha lattes and prancing around like reindeer in the snow during the true season of Christ’s birth. Thus you have the pagans to thank for all your winter-filled, Christmas fun.
Nazareth Was a Podunk Town
When God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary she would conceive a child through the Holy Spirit in Luke 1, He sent him to the insignificant town of Nazareth. According to Keener, Nazareth during this time period was no bigger than a dot on a map, with an estimated population of anywhere from 500 to 2,000 residents.
So not only did God choose a young teenage girl from humble upbringings to carry the Savior of the world, but He chose a girl from Nazareth, nonetheless. This is why in John 1, when a guy named Nathanael heard that the long-awaited Messiah was, in fact, “Jesus from Nazareth” he responded: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
To put it in today’s terms, this means that God passed over the New York City and Chicago of their day, and instead chose to kick-start His great plan of salvation in the kind of town you’d only stop in when you are running out of gas on the way home from vacation. People in antiquity were more shocked in God’s choosing of Jesus’ hometown than Walter Hobbs finding out he had a son who was an adult elf from the North Pole.
When it comes to our all-knowing and all-powerful God, He never stops using the element of surprise.
The Wise Men Were Actually Pagan Astrologers
Back in the time of Jesus’ birth, there was a strong belief in the power of astrology. Pagan astrologers, who went around interpreting the signs of the stars, were very well-respected and frequently sought out in the Greco-Roman world.
Although they would have seen themselves as religiously superior to pagan astrologers, even the Jews, God’s chosen people, jumped on the “astrology can predict the future” bandwagon.
Kenner says, “many rulers feared astrological signs of their demise,” which they believed were directly linked to their political downfall. This is why in the Bible, when Herod the Great hears the wise men talking about a star they will follow that will lead them to “the King of the Jews” he orders all the boys under the age of 2 in Bethlehem to be murdered. He feared the star would lead the wise men to the future king, who would overtake his throne.
In choosing to use a star to direct the wise men to Jesus, God was already hinting that even these pagan astrologers would be blessed by the birth of His Son. It’s a pretty cool start to the epic Christmas story.
Shepherds Were Despised
The Shepherds who were present at the birth of Jesus would have been looked down upon by their “holier” neighbors. Keener says this part of the Christmas story, “would have challenged the values of many religious people who despised shepherds, [whose] work kept them from participating in the religious activities of their communities.”
If anybody expected to be invited to the birthday party of the long-awaited Messiah, it was the overly religious people, not the lowly shepherds who were too busy literally counting sheep. Once again, we see God completing flipping the social order on its head and hinting to the Jews that Jesus would be a blessing for all of mankind, not just the religiously superior.
While in its simplest version, the Christmas story is nothing short of spectacular, learning the details surrounding the birth of Christ has made me appreciate God’s love for humanity that much more.
Not only did God humble Himself by sending His Son to earth, but He included the lowly, despised and looked down-upon to be a part of the special day that would forever change history. From the very beginning, God was making it clear that everyone would be offered salvation through His Son.
So as you go about tying fluffy red bows on neatly wrapped packages and compulsively checking to make sure you recorded every holiday movie known to man, relish and rest in the fact that the most beautiful story ever told is so much more beautiful than we ever thought possible.