Christmas: the birth of Jesus Christ

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December. The month of Christmas! The month when Christmas trees are being dragged inside or taken down from the attic. The streets are filled with Christmas lights and the Christmas commercials are once again true tearjerkers. All looking towards one goal of being together and having fun. Whether you know what the Christmas story is about or not - you cannot escape it! But that’s a good question, what is Christmas really about?

The beginning of the life of Jesus

Whether you are aware of it or not, every year you pause to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ. Especially at Christmas! Whether there is a pandemic or not, Christmas is never skipped in the Western part of the world. Over the years, the story behind Christmas has been somewhat diluted. Christmas has become about coziness and warmth during dark days and families coming together.

But originally Christmas was about the starting point of Jesus' life: his birth.
A pretty special life apparently, considering the fact that centuries later we still celebrate the birth of Jesus. But what did that actually look like? Who all were involved? Why do we still celebrate it today?

What is Christmas?

Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ. A story that seems to take place in a stable, in Bethlehem in Israel. In this stable, the pregnant Mary spends the night with her husband Joseph on a long journey.  On this night she gives birth to her child, Jesus. 

You've probably seen that nativity scene; a little hut with a baby in a wooden box. All around it are people who are looking at the baby with admiration. Let's take a look at the nativity scene to see what Christmas is all about.

The Christmas story: Who are all in a nativity scene?

The centerpiece of the nativity scene is baby Jesus. Christmas is all about the birth of this child named Jesus. Next to him are his father Joseph and his mother Mary. Because the story reveals that Jesus was born in a stable, there are also animals there. Also the baby's attendants are there: shepherds from the area and three Wise Men from the East. An angel is often depicted as hovering in the air. All these figures apparently play an important role in the Christmas story. Let's get to know them one by one.


Who is baby Jesus?

Baby Jesus is the child around whom the whole celebration revolves.Jesus is a special child. No matter what you think of him - his birth changed the world forever. Even our system for labeling the years are based on his birth. So there is literally a time before Jesus and a time after Jesus.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, lives in Egypt for several years, and then moves to Nazareth in Israel. That is why he is called "Jesus of Nazareth. As a young child he is already involved in religion and this increases with his age.

When he is around 30 years of age, he becomes a public figure. He gathers a group of friends around him and together they travel throughout the country. Everywhere he goes he talks about the love of God. He is quite radical and especially addresses the spiritual leaders of the country about their hypocritical beliefs. Jesus' message is simple: "Love God above all things and love your neighbor more than yourself." Many people embrace this message, much to the displeasure of the country's leaders. Jesus is sentenced to death when he is 33 years old and dies on a cross in Jerusalem.

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Who is Mary?

Mary is the mother of Jesus. As a young girl, she becomes pregnant. She would have been about 16 years old. That may sound very young in our time, however then, it was common for girls to marry around this age. Mary is a very ordinary girl from Nazareth. She is engaged to Joseph. But then she is visited by an angel who tells her that she will be expecting a special child and that she should name him Jesus. Mary is shocked because she has never had sex. God causes her to become pregnant. She embraces this special task and cares for Jesus throughout her life. Later she has other children together with Joseph. In some movements in the Christian faith, Mary has a very important role and is even prayed to.

Her name Mary probably means loved or desired. You see more often in the Bible that names have a deeper meaning and say something about a person's life or character. For example, Jesus means God saves. Christians believe this is exactly why Jesus was born: because God wants to save people.


Who is Joseph?

Joseph is the stepfather of Jesus. He is a carpenter and lives in Nazareth. He is engaged to Mary when he finds out she is expecting. Since they have not yet had sex, the baby cannot be his. How angry and disappointed he must have been! He makes plans to leave her. He wants nothing to do with this.

But then Joseph has a dream. In this dream an angel tells him that Mary has done nothing wrong. Because God has caused Mary to be pregnant. Although it must have been very difficult for Joseph, this dream apparently changes everything for him. He decides to be like a father to Jesus and continues to care for Jesus throughout his life. What is special is that Joseph has more dreams in this Christmas story, in which God wants to tell him something. You will read more about these dreams later. Apparently he experiences a very personal connection with God and these dreams are like truth to him.


Why are there shepherds in the nativity scene?

The shepherds are the first people to visit when Jesus is born. While herding sheep, they see angels who are telling them about the coming of this special child. They rush to the place the angels have pointed out to them.

In those days, shepherds were considered to be somewhat the scum of society. It was not a very desirable job to have. Shepherds were often rough types. That makes the fact that they were the first  allowed to visit the baby Jesus quite special. Christians see this as one of the signs that God is actually looking out for people who are on the fringe of society.


Who were the Three Wise Men from the East?

The Three Wise Men from the East are still sometimes described differently: as magicians, wise men or kings. One thing is certain, they came from the East. They are described as being  engaged in astronomy. Based on the stars they made predictions. They went on a journey when they saw a special star appear.

At that time they interpreted the special star as the arrival of a new king, and this king they wanted to meet. They go on a journey and follow the star to Israel. Logically, they first visit the king of the land, Herod. He, however, knows nothing about it. They continue their search and finally arrive at the stable in Bethlehem. They bring three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Actually, we know very little about these men. Over the years, the wise men have been given names: Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar. But these names were made up later. We do not know exactly where they came from. It has been thought that it could be Arabia, Ethiopia and Tarsis. In fact, we are not even sure if there were three. There could have been as many as twelve. The number three is based on the three gifts they gave. In any case, the maternity visit is celebrated each year during Epiphany on January 6.


What is the significance of the star above the nativity scene?

Above the stable often shines a star. The star plays an important role during Christmas. The star points the three Wise Men to the place where Jesus will be born. A new star represented the birth of a new king. The star was also seen at that time as a sign of a new and better time of hope. Astronomy plays almost no role in Christianity now, but apparently in those days people often looked up to the stars for signs. 

Did this Christmas star really exist? Astronomers almost all agree: yes! Chinese astronomers also reported seeing a special star around that time. What exactly these people saw remains unclear. A supernova, the planets Venus and Jupiter aligned or comet Halley. We don't know.


What role does the angel play in the nativity scene?

The angel is a recurring figure throughout the Christmas story. Mary is visited by an angel who tells her that she is pregnant. This angel is even given a name: Gabriel. This angel appears more often in the Bible to speak to people. Joseph regularly dreams of an angel. And then of course the shepherds hear from the angels that a special child has been born. The angel is often the messenger of news. In other religions such as Judaism and Islam, angels also play an important role.


What animals are in the nativity scene?

A complete nativity scene contains a whole collection of animals. Let's start with the animals that suddenly had to share their stable with Joseph, Mary and Jesus. An ox and a donkey, in those days very common animals to have. An ox to work the land, a donkey to travel with. The maternity visit provides even more animals.

The shepherds bring the sheep they are babysitting. The wise men from the East ride on camels. These are means of transportation for a long journey in those days. Whether those animals were really all in that stable, we don't know. Frankly, we are not at all sure it was a stable. The Bible only tells us that Jesus was lying in a manger. Therefore, it is assumed that He must have been somewhere among animals.

Where did the nativity scene actually stand?

Jesus was born in the place of Bethlehem, in the land of Israel. He was born in an old stable or cave. In fact, Joseph and Mary themselves lived in Nazareth, about 140 kilometers away. They had to walk for about a week to arrive in this city. Remember that Mary was already heavily pregnant.

They were not traveling to Bethlehem for a babymoon or city trip. They had to register in the population register of the time by order of the emperor. This is only allowed in the place where their family originally came from. Since this order applied to the entire country, the city was packed with guests and all the inns were overflowing. There was nowhere for Joseph and Mary to rest. 

Finally someone offers them a place to sleep, in a stable among the animals. Whether it is really in a hut as you often see in a nativity scene is debatable. Probably it would have been some kind of cave. But in any case it was somewhere where they could sleep. And ultimately the place where Mary gives birth to baby Jesus. According to the Christmas story, the baby is placed in a manger for animals, also called a crib.

Who is King Herod?

King Herod is not usually found in the nativity scene, but he does play an important role in the Christmas story as the bad guy. Joseph and Mary don't know him personally. But, he was the king of the land at the time. Very strict and ruthless and in fear of losing his power, he does everything he can to remain king.

When he hears predictions that a child will be born who will become king, he panics. So Herod has all the little boys from Bethlehem up to two years old killed. Earlier in this article you read about Joseph who receives a dream from God about the birth of Jesus. Later he dreams again, of an angel warning him of these horrors. Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt. Several years later, Joseph receives a dream that it is safe to return home. Herod has died. But Herod's son doesn't seem to be much better. They do need to stay away from him. After a fourth dream, Joseph decides it is safe enough to go back to live in Nazareth.

When did the Christmas story take place?

Our calendar is based on the birth of Jesus more than 2020 years ago. The exact year is not known but it is likely that his birth date is still four years earlier than our era. The month of December is actually not right either. Shepherds appear in the story of Christmas, however December is far too cold to be a shepherd outside looking after the sheep. It is likely that Jesus was born in March or April. December was chosen later, probably because the Romans used to celebrate the Midwinter Festival on December 25. The first Christians decided to use that holiday moment to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Who invented and wrote the story of Christmas?

You now know who is who in the nativity scene and the big picture of the Christmas story. But how do we actually know this story when it happened so long ago? Because the story is accurately written down in the Bible.  

The Bible is the most important book in the world for Christians. It consists of two parts and is actually a collection of books. The first part is called the Old Testament. This contains much about the history of Judaism and the land of Israel and about the creation of the world. In the Old Testament it says that one day a savior would come. It contains all kinds of predictions, and in fact a lot of these predictions seem to have come true with Jesus. In the Christmas story, a lot of elements come true that were written down thousands of years before. 

The second part is called the New Testament. Also a collection of books written by friends of Jesus and by people who wrote down the stories of his life after his death. Two different authors wrote the Christmas story namely Matthew and Luke. Matthew knew Jesus personally and was a close friend of his. Shortly after his death they started collecting stories and documented them. Other books in the New Testament are about how to live as a Christian and what the future will look like.

And where is Santa Claus, anyway?

One important Christmas figure seems to be missing from the nativity scene ; Santa Claus! That's because Santa Claus has nothing to do with the original Christmas story. The story of Santa Claus originated in America but actually finds its origin in the Netherlands. For Santa Claus is a corruption of - you might have guessed it - Sinterklaas. Dutch emigrants took this tradition with them to America and this was mixed with German traditions such as giving presents at Christmas.


Also, the Christmas tree actually has nothing to do with Christmas itself. The practice of putting up a tree in December and decorating it has its roots in ancient Germanic festivals. For a long time, the Christmas tree was even banned by Christians because it had nothing to do with Christmas.

Who actually invented the nativity scene?

Now that we have discussed all the figures in the nativity scene, you might also be curious about where the idea of the nativity scene actually comes from. The first mention of a nativity scene dates back from well after the birth of Jesus, in 1223. Francis of Assisi, an important clergyman at the time, first set up a living nativity scene in a town in Italy.

Before that, a crib was sometimes set up during Christmas. But reenacting the Christmas story in this way had not been done before. Francis of Assisi wanted to give people something more regarding the human side of the story. A peasant and peasant woman from the village played Joseph and Mary. He hoped the onlookers would be inspired by the sobriety and humility.

People found the scene so special that they started repeating it at home, to remember the story and the idea behind Christmas.

Is the story of Christmas actually true?

Perhaps the most important question, because, of course, it is a wonderful, exciting, and perhaps even romantic story of Christmas. There is the love between Joseph and Mary, the cute little baby Jesus, the bad guy Herod, and miraculous events like the arrival of the shepherds and the wise men. Much of the Christmas story is romanticized and may not quite match how it all really went down.

Why do we still celebrate Christmas today?

The big question that remains is this: why do people still celebrate Christmas today, so many centuries later? For Christians, Jesus is the most important figure in their faith. His birth is therefore a joyous occasion. They believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that God sent him to earth to show how much God loves people. The details of the Christmas story are less important. What matters is the message behind Christmas. God who always seemed so far away is now a little vulnerable child who comes to live on earth. Never before has God been so close. Christmas is a celebration of hope and love.

Christmas is just the beginning. The first feast on the Christian calendar. This is followed by important feasts such as Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. Because  baby Jesus did not stay small, His birth was only his entrance. He grew up into a mature man with a clear mission. A mission that he must eventually pay for with death. But that is a whole other story!

Want to know more about Christmas?

Do you want to know more about Christmas, but don't you know where to start? Try our Christmas reading plan in YouVersion!