Christmas: the birth of Jesus Christ

Home ›› Holidays ›› Christmas: the birth of Jesus Christ

December. The month we celebrate Christmas! 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! We all know its not supposed to be the big consumeristic event its turned into. Year after year movies are made centred around the big holiday, all trying to point to the 'true meaning' of Christmas. But what is the true meaning really? 

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! Christmas is never skipped in the Western part of the world. Over the years, the story behind Christmas has been somewhat diluted and confused. We all know its not really about presents or Santa Claus. So Christmas has become about coziness and warmth during dark days, about love, giving and the importance of family.

But originally Christmas was about 'Incarnation'. Which means God becoming human. Specifically Jesus coming to this broken world as a baby. Just like any other baby and yet not at all. 

It's safe to say that Jesus' life was unlike any other, considering the fact that centuries later we still celebrate the birth of Jesus. But what did that actually look like? Who were all those involved? Why do we still celebrate it today?

What is Christmas?

Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ. A story that took place in a stable, in Bethlehem in Israel. In this stable, the pregnant Mary spends the night with her husband Joseph after 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, what , where?

The centrepiece 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. In addition there were shepherds from the area and 'Wise Men' or "Magi' from the East. An angel is often depicted as hovering in the air. All these figures played an important role in the true Christmas story. Let's get to know them one by one.

Jesus' manger

What Child is This?

This infant Jesus is the one around whom the whole celebration revolves. Jesus is a special child. No matter what you think of him - his birth changed the world forever. What made this little one any different from other babies? Well he was conceived by the Holy Spirit of God. He is the only person to be born that is both fully human and fully God. Which is why Jesus is also called the Son of God!

This is why the birth of this baby is still celebrated over 2000 years later!

mom and baby

Who is Mary?

Mary is a very ordinary girl from Nazareth. She was engaged to Joseph. She would have been about 16 years old. That may sound very young in our time, then it was common for girls to marry around this age. Mary was visited by an angel who tells her that she will be expecting a special child and that she should name him Jesus. Mary was shocked because she has never had sex. She actually asked the angel "How can this be?" The angel assured her that God  would cause her to become pregnant, by his spirit! She embraces this special task. 

A beautiful thing we learn from Mary is embracing the plan of God even if it is confusing and painful. Mary was humble and obedient, and she is now blessed for all of eternity because of it! 


Who is Joseph?

Joseph was 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 quietly.

But then Joseph has a dream, an angel tells him that Mary has done nothing wrong, God has caused Mary to be pregnant! Also that the child would be the savior of the world. Although it must have been very difficult for Joseph, this dream changes everything for him. He decides to be a father to Jesus.

Joseph has more dreams in this story, in which God tells him important things. You will read more about these dreams later. 

Sheep and Shepherd

Why are there shepherds?

The shepherds are the first people to visit when Jesus is born. On the night of Jesus birth an angel appeared to them while they were in the fields. Telling them about this special child. They rush to the place the angels have pointed out to them.

In those days, shepherds were considered to be low statues in society. It was not a very desirable job to have. Shepherds were often rough types. That makes the fact that they were the first  told to visit the baby Jesus quite special. This shows us that God is actually looking out for people who are on the fringe of society.

Wise men on camels

What about these 'Wise Men'?

"We three kings from Orient..." as the song goes. There is actually no biblical record of their being a party of three. Sometimes they are described, as magi or wise men. One thing is certain, they came from the East. We know they were engaged in astronomy. Based on the stars they made predictions. 

We know they were doing just this when a new special star appeared. They interpreted this star to mean the arrival of a new king. They go on a journey and follow the star to Israel. They first visit the king of the land, Herod. He knows nothing about it. So they continue their search and finally arrive at the stable in Bethlehem. They bring three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. This is where the idea of there being three of them came from. 

An interesting detail is that all though you usually see nativities with both shepherds and wise men present the wise men would have shown up 2 year after Jesus birth. So the shepherds were long gone, and hopefully the little holy family had better accommodations at that point then a stable!

Star of Bethleham

What about the star?

Above the stable often shines a star. The star plays an important role during Christmas. We even see it on the top of the tree often, shining brightly. The star points the 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. Either why, there certainly is recorded a bright new star seen at that exact time. 

angel in the night

What about the Angel?

The angel is a recurring figure throughout the Christmas story. Mary is visited by an angel named Gabriel who tells her that she  will become pregnant. This same angel appears to other people in the bible too. Joseph has multiple dreams where an angel speaks to him. Then of course the shepherds hear from the angels that a saviour has been born.

Its good to know that angels as we often see them depicted in decor, as beautiful ethereal women or how we imagine chubby cherubs, are not at all how angels are describe in the bible. In most cases when we read about people encountering angels the very first thing the angel says is "Do not be afraid". The reason for this is because their appearance would have been frightening! We read that they were imposingly tall, bronzed and radiating light. 


What animals are in the nativity scene?

A typical 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. We don't know what animals were there, but we know that Jesus was born in a stable and lay in a manger. So its assumed there were various animals there that would have been typical to the time period, like an ox or goats. There would be the donkey we know Mary rode to get the Bethlehem in her very pregnant state too. 

The shepherds bring the sheep they are herding 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 happen?

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the land of Israel. He was born in an old stable or cave. Joseph and Mary 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 very 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. Historically the place where Mary gives birth to baby Jesus. Accordingly Jesus was wrapped in clothe and placed in a manger for animals. 

When was the first Christmas?

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.  Shepherds appear in the story, however December is far too cold to be a shepherd outside looking after the sheep. This means likely 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.

Is it just another fairy tale?

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, 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.

Who wrote the story?

Do we actually know this story is true when it happened so long ago?

The answer is yes! We do, 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. There were many prophecies about how and where the Jewish messiah would be born and Jesus fulfilled all of them! 

The second part is called the New Testament. Also a collection of books written by followers of Jesus and by people who wrote down the stories of his life after his death. Two different authors wrote the Christmas story, 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.

Where is Santa Claus?

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 actually finds its origin in the Netherlands. For Santa Claus is a variation 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.

Additionally, 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 first reenacted the nativity scene?

Now that we have discussed all the figures, you might wondering where the idea of recreating the scene of Jesus birth came from? The first mention of a nativity scene is 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.

Why do we still celebrate Christmas today?

The big question that remains is this: why do people still celebrate Christmas today, so millenia later? For Christians, Jesus is the most important figure in their faith. His birth is 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. There are many details that are unimportant, what matters is the message behind Christmas. God who always seemed so far away is now a little vulnerable child,

"and they shall call his name Immanuel”

which means, God with us." Matthew 1:23

Never before has God been so close. Christmas is a celebration of hope and love. Jesus came to fulfil the meaning of his name, "God Saves". 

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!