This is the time of year when parents find out at what age their children stop believing in Father Christmas. It’s a process that takes something away from the magic, but not entirely. Many of us keep up the pretence well into adulthood. My mother died when I was 41. Right up to the last year of her life I woke up on Christmas morning to find a full stocking at the foot of my bed – and so, mysteriously, did she! Whether you actually believe in him or not, Father Christmas is still part of the delight of the season.
How many of us have reached that stage with the main Christmas story? Every year we see it enacted in Nativity plays, celebrate it in carol services and hear it expounded in sermons, and everyone assumes it happened just like that. Well, at the risk of sounding like the nasty big brother who destroys his younger sibling’s belief in Santa Claus, let me encourage you to think about the story in an adult way.
Of course, most people realise that the Wise Men were not in the stable the same time as the shepherds, and that they weren’t kings, and that the Bible story says nothing about a donkey or even a stable, not to mention a little drummer boy or any of the other imaginary bits we hang around it.
When we look a bit more closely still, there are problems about the whole story. It is questionable whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem at all. There are two accounts of the birth of Jesus, one in Matthew and one in Luke, and they contradict each other.
According to Matthew, Jesus was born in Bethlehem and was still there some months later when the wise men came. When Joseph and Mary were warned of Herod’s plan to kill all the male children, they fled to Egypt, and stayed there until Herod died. They then meant to return to Bethlehem, but when they found that his son was just as ruthless as him, they travelled further north until they were outside his jurisdiction, and settled in a place called Nazareth, which hasn’t been mentioned in the story up to that point.
In Luke’s version, Joseph and Mary’s home was Nazareth, but when Mary’s baby was almost due, they had to go to Bethlehem because of a census. After Jesus was born, they stayed just long enough to observe the required rituals in the Temple in Jerusalem – which was only a few miles away – and then went back home to Nazareth.
Where did these two contradictory stories come from? The simple answer seems to be that they were both an attempt to explain how Jesus of Nazareth could be the Messiah when the Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem, the City of David. It’s much more likely that he was born in Nazareth.
Was Jesus literally born of a virgin? And in what sense, if any, did he ‘come down to earth from heaven’? Those questions demand another blog.
To come back to Santa Claus: although as adults we don’t believe in him literally, we still keep the story going – even in houses that don’t have a chimney, and even with grown-up children. Why? Because not only is it a charming bit of fun, but it reinforces our thankfulness for the warmth and generosity of our loved ones that is the real spirit of the season.
And we can have the same kind of adult celebration of the Nativity. Whatever literally happened or didn’t happen, we can enjoy it as a beautiful story. Above all we can hold onto its essential meaning, summed up in the lovely alliteration of a Welsh carol: ‘Daeth Duwdod mewn baban i’n byd’ – God came in a baby to our world. I even question whether it should just be in the past tense – but that too is another blog.