What's the Real Nativity Story? Kid, You Don't Want to Know

Giveaway 1Last week, my daughter was looking at a copy of The Christmas Story: The Brick Bible for Kids, author Brendan Powell Smith’s LEGO depiction of the Christian nativity (which I'll be giving away as part of a promotion next Monday). The book is fun and funny, and I figured she'd love it. But, when she got to page 11, she slammed it shut.

“I don’t like this book,” she announced.

“You don’t like the story?” I asked.

“No," she said. "I like the story."

“You don’t like LEGOs?” I asked.

"No," she said. "I like LEGOs.”

"Then why don’t you like the book?”

“Because," she said. "It's not right. Mary came to Bethlehem ON A DONKEY.”

I opened up the book. Sure enough, there was Mary and Joseph walking to Bethlehem.

The Christmas Story

“Actually," I explained, "the Bible never says anything about a donkey. That part was added in later by other people.”

“No!" she said, all pissed off. “MARY RODE A DONKEY!"

Then she slammed the book shut again.

Wow, kid, I thought. You’re going to have a hard time when I tell you the rest of it.

•••

Historically speaking, it’s highly — and when I say highly, I mean HIGHLY — unlikely that Jesus was born in a stable, or placed in a manger, or visited by three magi. Because it is highly unlikely that Joseph and Mary made that trek to Bethlehem in the first place — on a donkey or otherwise. According to scholarly research on the subject, Jesus was probably born near his hometown of Nazareth, and it was probably not in December, and the birth was probably pretty unceremonious. After all, historically speaking, Jesus didn't rise to prominence until he grew up and started his traveling ministry.

In fact, there is surprisingly little we know for certain about Jesus. Some would say that nothing is certain, but exhaustive scholarly research suggests otherwise. Most scholars agree on these three facts:

1. Jesus lived. 2. Jesus was baptized by John (the, um, Baptist). 3. Jesus was crucified by the Romans near Jerusalem.

But, dude, that’s it. That’s all we know. Even taking the supernatural stuff out of the equation (that he was the son of God, that he performed miracles, that he rose from the dead, that he ascended to heaven), there is still so much open to interpretation, speculation and guesswork.

The most fascinating part to me is that, according to many scholars, numerous details from Jesus' life were invented after his death in order to match him up with the Old Testament version of the Jewish Messiah. Written 500 to 700 years before Jesus' birth, the books of the Old Testament mention a coming Messiah something like 300 times. And let me tell you: They got really specific. So all the New Testament stories about Jesus weren't creative storytelling so much as they were a recounting of these old messianic stories. For example, the Old Testament said the Jewish Messiah would:

 Be born of a virgin: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." Isaiah 7:14. 

• Preach the 'good news': "The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners." Isaiah 61:1-2

• Enter Jerusalem on a donkey: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." Zechariah 9:9

• Be betrayed by a friend: "Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me." Psalm 41:9

• Be crucified: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads... He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him." Psalm 22:1,7-8

Now, most Christians would say that the scholars have it all wrong. Jesus' story "matches up" to the Old Testament because Jesus was the Messiah. But some of it is just too convenient. In a historical context, it doesn't fly.

Let’s go back to the nativity, for example.

In the Old Testament, the Messiah is described as being from Bethlehem — the birthplace of Jerusalem, the place where King David established his kingdom, and the city in which the "People of Israel" got their start. It was said that the Messiah would be a descendent of David himself and therefore have a rightful claim to the throne. Consider Micah 5:2, written in 750 BCE: "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times."

In other words, it was vital that Jesus have a connection to Bethlehem if he were ever going to be passed off as the true Messiah.

The thing is, it makes no sense whatsoever that Joseph and Mary would leave Nazareth and head to Bethlehem to register for a Census when Mary was 9 months pregnant. Not just in the dead of winter — but ever. Jesus' family hadn't lived in Bethlehem in hundreds and hundreds of years; to trace his family back to the city of David, Joseph and Mary would have had to go back 42 generations. (If you've ever tried to map out your own family tree, you know how unlikely that is.) Furthermore, as researchers have pointed out, even if they could trace their family heritage back that far, no emperor would force all his people to return to their ancestral cities to register for the Census. It's not rational. And the emperor at the time, Emperor Augustus, apparently was known as a rational man.

•••

So who was Jesus? A charismatic leader? A philosopher? An activist? A prophet? A man with a mental illness? Anything is possible, I suppose. But one thing is all but certain: The Christmas nativity, as we know it, didn't happen.

Maxine is going to be crushed.

 

The Secularization of Christmas Isn't Just Okay — It's Great

Good Tidings Great JoyStart your engines, folks, the War on Christmas is here again! This time it's Sarah Palin leading the charge with her new book: Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. Released a couple of weeks ago, the book is apparently — brace yourself, this is shocking — really, really awful. The Daily Beast's Candida Moss actually read the damn thing (bless her heart) and came away with a whole lot of nothing.

"Ultimately," Moss wrote in her review, "this is a Christmas of no-bake cookies, half-baked theology, and pre-packaged Christmas stories."

By way of the "half-baked theology," Moss said, the former Vice Presidential candidate at one point talks about about placing a menorah on her Christmas table every year to "acknowledge Christianity's Judeo-Christian roots." That bit made me laugh out loud. God, she's an idiot.

But back to the War on Christmas.

By my read, the War on Christmas has two main tentacles, or assumptions:

1. Christmas is becoming a secular holiday.

2. People are forcing it into secularization by killing off all mention of Christ.

Okay, first of all, Number 1? Flat-out true.

Christmas is becoming a secular holiday. Not for everyone, of course, but for some. Maybe even for many. Definitely for me. I love Christmas — the trees, the lights, the gift giving, all of it — but I took the Christ out of my Christmas a long time ago. Other than telling my daughter about the wonderful little legend of Jesus' birth in a stable in Bethlehem, my version of Christmas is a season of entirely nonreligious traditions and celebrations. Sure, those celebrations are rooted in my Christian heritage, and I wholly acknowledge that. (The same way Palin acknowledges her religion's Jewish roots with a menorah.) But do I attach some deeper personal meaning to Christmas? No, not at all. You could say I am a secular Christian in the same way some of my friends are secular Jews or secular Hindus. They'll probably always celebrate Hanukkah and Diwali, but does that mean they actually believe in God, Brahman, or that dude with the elephant head? Uh, no.

So, yes, Fox News, I'll give you No. 1. But you lose me at No. 2.

Apart from some civic-minded folks trying to make their public spaces more inclusive of other cultures by removing nativity scenes and the like, no one is forcing Christmas into secularization. Yes, mentions of Christ are dropping like flies. But that's not because of injuries sustained in any damn war. It's because more and more Americans — more than 20 percent of us — are nonreligious. Christmas is becoming more secular because we are becoming more secular.

The holiday isn't dying. It's evolving.

And isn't that a good thing? Would Fox News rather we secularists stopped celebrating Christmas altogether? I wonder how Sarah Palin would feel if a quarter of her family and friends stopped showing up to her annual Christmas party? I wonder how all those corporations and business owners and stock brokers would feel if we stopped spending millions of our dollars on colored lights, blow-up Santas and gifts for our loved ones every year?

No, Fox News, I won't be putting the Christ back into my Christmas. Ever. But if my family and friends will let me, I'll continue to lug home pine trees from the local Christmas tree lot and obscure all but the scent of those trees with a heinous number of Christmas ornaments. I'll hang the gorgeous, envy-inducing Christmas stockings my mother knitted for each member of my family. I'll listen to the Christmas carols my grandmother used to play on the piano when I was a child. With my husband, daughter, parents, in-laws, siblings, nieces, nephews and friends always on my mind, I'll wrap Christmas presents and watch Christmas movies and read Christmas books and bake Christmas cookies and attend Christmas parties. I'll do it all.

And in doing so, I will indeed "protect the heart of Christmas." It won't be Palin's exact version of Christmas, of course. But it will be Christmas just the same. And it will be great.

Why Secular Parents Should Do the Santa Thing

Does it seem a bit weird to talk about Santa in July? Probably. But that's the chapter of my book I'm working on at the moment, so that's the subject you're getting today. My apologies in advance! I'm not sure how many of you have read Parenting Beyond Belief, edited (and partially written) by Dale McGowan, but it's considered sort of a must-read in some nonreligious parenting circles. The essay-driven collection is a hodgepodge of ideas set forth by famous and not-so-famous atheist/agnostic parents on a whole range of topics.

My favorite bit in the book is offered by McGowan himself on the subject of the whether secular families who celebrate Christmas should engage in the Santa myth with their children. McGowan's bit was offered as a counterpoint to an essay by Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism who in 1993 wrote The Trouble With Christmas — a book that no-doutedly helped fuel the overhyped, so-called "War on Christmas" controversy. Flynn's Parenting Beyond Belief essay (which can be read here) is called "Put the Claus Away" and lays out five main arguments against letting kids believe in Santa.

1. To perpetuate the Santa myth, parents must lie to their kids. 2. To buoy belief, adults often stage elaborate deceptions, laying traps for the child's developing intellect. 3. The myth encourages lazy parenting and promotes unhealthy fear. 4. The myth makes kids more acquisitive, not less so. 5. The myth appears to exploit age-appropriate cognitive patterns that religious children use in forming their ideas of God.

Although I think there's a whole lot of exaggeration in this list, his first and second points are the same ones I struggled with about the time my daughter hit her second birthday. Is it okay to lie to my kid when it's all in "good fun?" And, if so, how much lying is too much lying? After all, "letting her believe" is not the same as "encouraging her to believe," which is not the same as "insisting she believe." Yet all of these include some level of deception. Can I justify deception? Or has this whole lying thing gotten blow way out of proportion?

I explored this issue a bit — and fielded some great comments — back in February, with a post called Honesty, Schmonesty: When Did Lying to Kids Get Such a Bad Wrap? I don't think I mentioned it at the time, but my thoughts on this were affected by a mother who wrote a blog post on coming clean about the Tooth Fairy before her son was ready. As she says in her post, the boy already had suspected that Mommy was the Tooth Fairy and was having fun collecting "evidence" and "investigating" his suspicions. But when this blogger revealed the truth (although cryptically) before he had fully figured it out, the boy was devastated. "Now I know for sure that Mom and Dad are the Tooth Fairy," he lamented. (She quickly back-tracked and, to his delight, was able to salvage his belief for a bit longer… which, as it turns out, is all he wanted.)

The blogger, Noell Hyman, contributed a couple of essays to Parenting Beyond Belief — which brings me back to McGowan.

In his essay, titled "Santa Claus — The Ultimate Dry Run,"  McGowan hits a home run in his defense of the Santa myth. He argues that "figuring out that Santa is not real" is a wonderful rite of passage for children, as long as parents tread lightly around the myth, and stay alert for the first hints of skepticism. When McGowan's son, for example, began to ask pointed questions — How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How can he make it down the chimney with his big belly? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? — McGowan didn't try to answer the questions. He simply said: "Some people believe the sleigh is magic. Does that sound right to you?" and so on.

"I avoided both lying and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself," McGowan wrote in the essay. And then, when his son was 9 and finally asked him point-blank whether Santa was real, McGowan said, one last time, "What do you think?"

"Well," his son answered, smiling. "I think all the moms and dads are Santa. Am I right?"

McGowan smiled back and told the truth.

"So," McGowan asked, "how do you feel about that?"

His son shrugged. "That's fine. Actually, it's good. The world kind of… I don't know… makes sense again."

How cool is that?

Dale's attitude, which I think is the perfect combination between smart and fun, is the one I've tried to adopt as my own. I'm totally down for giving Santa cookies and looking for him out the window before we go to bed on Christmas Eve. But, as Maxine gets older and her critical thinking start kicking into high gear, my plan is to encourage her questioning while not ruining the surprise. If she asks me how Santa gets around the world in a night, I'll say, "I have no idea. It seems almost impossible, doesn't it?" If she asks me whether I believe in Santa, I'll say: "You know how I am about believing in things I've never seen for myself. What do you think? Do you believe in Santa?"

It's not all that unlike how I deal with the God questions, honestly. And McGowan makes very clear in his essay that this is part of the point. He writes:

"Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one… By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside."

The other thing McGowan suggests (that I love!) is heaping on praise the moment your child figures it all out for the first time: "Wow! How did you figure it out? What were your clues? I'm so proud of you!" In this way, you underscore how the Santa story is a real rite of passage, and "figuring it out" is something that takes a special type of maturity and wisdom.

Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents

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We here at Relax, It's Just God believe that religious literacy and tolerance doesn't just happen. We parents have to make it happen.

Unfortunately, saying the word “Hanukkah” once a year and pointing out burkas in the airport just doesn't cut it. A true religious education requires context. Tolerance requires action. If you want your children to be interested in and respectful of those around them, you must knit a sense of interest and respect into your childrearing — today and throughout the year.

That's why major religious holidays are such fantastic vehicles for religious literacy. And the best part? Thanks to this here Holiday Cheat Sheet, you don't have to know a damn thing about any of them. We're one-stop shopping for on-the-go parents. Click on one of the links and in just a few minutes, you'll find out why that holiday exists, how it's celebrated and fun ways to convey its meanings to kids.

So stop letting those vaguely familiar-sounding holidays pass you by in a blur of Phineas and Ferb re-runs. Seize these small but wonderful opportunities to introduce your kids to religious concepts and figures — while also showing compassion for the people who hold these concepts and figures so dear.

September

Quick! What the Hell is Yom Kippur (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Rosh Hashana? (Judaism)

October

Quick! What the Hell is Diwali? (Hinduism)

Quick! What the Hell is Hajj? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid al-Adha? (Islam)

December

Quick! What the Hell is Hanukkah? (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Christmas? (Christianity)

January

Quick! What the Hell is Epiphany? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Mawlid al-Nabi? (Islam)

February

Quick: What the Hell is St. Valentine's Day? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Ash Wednesday? (Christianity)

March

Quick! What the Hell is Purim? (Judaism)

April

Quick! What the Hell is Easter? (Christianity)

Quick! What the Hell is Passover? (Judaism)

May

Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day? (Buddhism)

Quick! What the Hell is Pentecost? (Christianity)

July

Quick! What the Hell is Ramadan? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid ul-Fitr? (Islam)

There's more to come, so please keep checking back!

Quick! What the Hell is Christmas?

I dare any American to drive two blocks from where you are right now, and not see evidence of Christmas. More than a holiday, "Christ's Mass" has become an industry, an economy, a culture. It's fact, the better question may be: What the Hell isn't Christmas? And yet, here I am, offering you the latest installment of my Holiday Cheat Sheet series. I'm hoping some of you will learn something. And even if you don't, I bet I'll make you laugh. (Of course, by "laugh" I mean think about laughing. "LOL" killed real laughter a long time ago.)

Holiday: Christmas

Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: Dec. 25

Celebrates: The birth of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians believe is the Messiah, AKA the Christ. The four weeks leading up to Dec. 25 are known as the Advent, a time of spiritual cleansing, renewal and online shopping.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Christmas is a 9.5, just a smidge less important than Easter.

Star of the Show: Jesus

Back story:As the story goes, Jesus was born to a virgin mother named Mary, who was miraculously impregnated by the Holy Spirit. In her 6th month of pregnancy, the angel Gabriel appeared and told her Jesus should be "Son of the Highest" and "of his kingdom there shall be no end." Mary went into labor in the city of Bethlehem, where she and her husband, Joseph, had gone to register for the census. There was no room at the local inn, so Mary wrapped the baby in cloth and laid him in a manger. At some later point, a number of magi (astronomers) followed a mysterious star to the house where Jesus was living at that time. They brought the little boy — whom they heralded as the new “King of the Jews” — gifts of gold, frankincense and myhrr. The story takes a dark twist, however, when King Herod learns that a new king has been born and orders the massacre of all young, male boys in the city Bethlehem — so as to protect his throne.

Associated literary passages: Two passages in the Bible tell the story of Jesus’ birth: Matthew 1:18-3:23, and Luke 1:26 and 2:40

The Santa connection: He may be called St. Nick, but Santa Claus, the famous bearded elf in a red suit, has nothing to do with Christianity, per se. His is a parallel narrative that has been folded into Christmas. 

The Food: Christmas is associated with roast beef, ham, turkey, chestnuts, cranberries, oranges, candy canes, figgy pudding and something called a fruitcake, which one should never actually consume.

The Fun: For Christians, Christmas is about peace, joy, goodwill, and giving, and — lucky for children — the “giving” part translates into presents. Lots and lots of presents. Usually gifts are placed in stockings (which traditionally hang by the fireplace) and collected under Christmas trees until a grand reveal Christmas morning. 

 Conveying meaning to kids: Tell the nativity story, followed by‘Twas the Night Before Christmas; explain the difference. Watch one of the billions of Christmas movies (particulary “Scrooge” —even though your husband does think Albert Finney over-acted in the part of Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s wrong. Be sure to tell him that.) Listen to some Christmas carols — or, better yet, go caroling around your neighborhood! Participate in a toy drive. Have dinner with your family.

And, please, for the sake of your kids: Do not underestimate the importance of Christmas crackers. Not only do these British goodies make a fun snap when opened, they contain paper crowns, which, when worn by all your family members at one time, immediately remove any underlying tensions among them. Better still, the little jokes and toys give the kids something to do and during what otherwise might be a way-too-formal affair.