Christmas reminds me of a sticky ball rolling down a hill, accumulating bits and pieces from everything it passes, until it’s one big adhesive mess and it’s hard to tell what the original ball looked like. We’ve gone from a simple explanation of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth to the huge holiday extravaganza we now experience. This is one holiday that needs to go on a diet.
Some of the traditions we associate with Christmas make sense—at least I can see the connection. Giving gifts is a reflection of the magi’s offering of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Advent calendars and wreaths help us focus on God’s purpose in sending His Son. Decorating with lights reminds us that Jesus is the Light of the world. And of course, there are Christmas carols (which may or may not be relevant or accurate).
But what about decking the halls with boughs of holly, kissing under the mistletoe, and squeezing decorated fir trees into our living rooms? These are more symbolic of pagan solstice rituals than a Christian celebration. Then there are the secular add-ons—Christmas candy, cookies, and figgy pudding (I had to look that one up). Santa, leg lamps, and elves on shelves. Grandmas getting run over by reindeer, that may or may not have glowing red noses. Even the date we celebrate has little to do with Jesus’ actual birthday, and much more with the Roman festival called Saturnalia.
With all this in mind, I’ve crafted a little quiz to help us distinguish fact from fiction from unsubstantiated conjecture. I was inspired by a similar quiz that a friend brought to our home group Christmas party (thank you, Sherri!), when I was surprised by how tricky some of the questions were. The answers are at the end, but no peeking until you’ve done your best.
True/False/We don’t know
- The Christmas story appears in all four gospels.
- The circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth fulfill a number of Old Testament prophecies.
- Gabriel told Mary she was going to have a baby.
- Joseph was a direct descendant of King David.
- Joseph wanted to divorce Mary once he learned that she was pregnant.
- An angel told Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem.
- Mary rode a donkey on the way to Bethlehem.
- Mary was probably already in labor when she arrived in Bethlehem.
- The innkeeper in Bethlehem turned them away because the inn was full.
- Jesus was born in a stable.
- There were animals present when Jesus was born.
- Jesus was born at night.
- Mary remained a virgin for her entire life.
- The angels that appeared to the shepherds were singing.
- An angel told the shepherds that Jesus was the Messiah.
- Mary and Joseph chose the name Jesus because they had relatives with that name.
- Three magi (wise men) came to visit Jesus.
- The magi rode camels.
- The magi found Jesus lying in a manger.
- Herod tried to kill Jesus.
- No, it’s only in Matthew and Luke.
- (See the gospel of Matthew for numerous examples.)
- True, Luke 1:26-31
- True, Matthew 1
- Matthew 1:19.
- It was Caesar Augustus. Luke 2:1
- We don’t know. The Bible doesn’t tell us how she got there.
- False, Luke 2:6
- We don’t know. The Bible doesn’t mention an innkeeper, simply that there was no room. Luke 2:7
- We don’t know. Animals were sheltered both in caves and in the lower story of homes, both of which would have had mangers to hold feed.
- We don’t know. There is no mention of animals in either Matthew or Luke. The manger implies that animals were quartered in the space, but they could have been taken outside for the birth.
- We can infer that this is true, but we don’t know for sure what time Jesus was born. The Jewish “day” starts at sundown. Since the angels appeared to the shepherds at night, and the announcement says “today” or “this day,” we can assume that it is still that same night. ) Luke 2:11
- See Matthew 1:25, which resulted in Jesus having siblings, Matthew 12:46.
- False/We don’t know. The Bible just says they spoke, not that they sang. Luke 2:10, 13
- True, Luke 2:11
- False. Gabriel told them what to name the baby, Luke 1:31 and Luke 2:21
- We don’t know. The Bible doesn’t tell us how many magi there were.
- We don’t know. It isn’t mentioned.
- He was in a house, Matthew 2:11, and was likely a toddler, Matthew 2:16.
- True, Matthew 2:13.
 From Wikipedia: The actual date of Jesus’s birth is unknown, but, in the fourth century AD, Pope Julius I (337–352) formalized that it should be celebrated on 25 December, around the same time as the Saturnalia celebrations. It is highly probable that part of the reason why he chose this date may have been because he was trying to create a Christian alternative to Saturnalia. Another reason for the decision may have been because, in 274 AD, the Roman emperor Aurelian had declared 25 December the birthdate of Sol Invictus and Julius I may have thought that he could attract more converts to Christianity by allowing them to continue to celebrate on the same day. He may have also been influenced by the idea that Jesus had died on the anniversary of his conception; because Jesus died during Passover and, in the third century AD, Passover was celebrated on 25 March, he may have assumed that Jesus’s birthday must have come nine months later, on 25 December.
I should also point out that in our family, we happily decorate a tree, make cookies, and wrap stocking stuffers from Santa. These things aren’t necessarily bad. But we should be conscious of the difference between the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth, and those traditions our culture has tacked on for whatever reason.