Twelve things to know about the real story of Christmas

12 things to know Christmas

Bethlehem at dusk, with the cone-shaped hill of the Herodium in the distance, just beyond the tower in the center of this National Geographic photo.

Just in time for the Twelve Days of Christmas, here are twelve things you should know about the real Christmas story.

  1. Jesus was born in a cave. No doubt about this one. Bethlehem is littered with natural caves and even today, shepherds use them for cover when the weather turns cold or wet. The church that marks the traditional site of Jesus’ birth is built over the cave where it is said the Christ child was born.
  1. The manger was made of stone. Hike around the shepherd’s fields of Israel and you’ll soon find a few flat stones with an area in the center hollowed out. Shepherds could fill such a “manger” with hay, other food, or water. In an emergency, these mangers also make for a make-do baby bed!

  1. The “inns” of Bethlehem were extra rooms in private homes. As families grew larger in the village, it was common for expectant fathers to enlarge a family’s home by carving out new rooms in the relatively soft limestone rock common to the area. In time, his children would move to their own homes, leaving extra rooms in homes across the village. When the Jewish holidays brought overflow crowds to Jerusalem, these families rented out their extra rooms to visitors.
  1. Jesus wasn’t born on Dec. 25. Our red-letter date on European calendars came about when early church leaders set aside the day to honor the birth of Christ and to eliminate a pagan holiday that had been celebrated on Dec. 25. The pagan holiday honored the birth of the sun, adding to the attraction of making the day one to honor the birth of the Son. It took the better part of a century before Dec. 25 became known as the birthday of Jesus.
  1. Jesus was probably born in the fall. The shepherds were still keeping their sheep out in the open when Jesus was born, so the time of his birth can be narrowed to the season between Passover and the beginning of the winter rainy season. Timelines trying to reconstruct the life of Jesus generally point to the early fall of 2 BCE as the time of Jesus’ birth. And could John have given us a clue in John 1:14? “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us,” is the literal reading of that verse. The festival of Tabernacles is celebrated each fall during the high holy days of the Jewish calendar.
  1. A mistake was made when the calendar we know today was reset. In an effort to honor Christ, the dating of history was reset to divide history into before-Christ and after-Christ sections. The mistake? There is no “Year Zero!” In addition, it’s pretty clear the scientists of the first few centuries even missed the first “Year of our Lord,” which is what anno domini (AD) means. More recent terminology refers to BCE and CE, which stands for “Before Common Era” and “Common Era.” Even if new initials mark the calendar divide, the one single event that still separates history is the birth of Jesus.
  1. “We Three Kings” is the most error-filled Christmas carol of all. The magi from the East weren’t kings. We don’t know how many visitors arrived, though the gifts they brought would suggest three gift-givers. But there could have been any number from two up. And they weren’t necessarily from “the Orient.” They were simply from “the east.”
  1. Mary and Joseph moved quickly to more stable lodging in Bethlehem. The visiting magi, Matthew tells us, found the child in the “house” (Matthew 2:11) when they came to Bethlehem. How long did the couple stay in the cave where Jesus had been born? Perhaps only as long as it took for some caring women to find out that a poor girl had been forced to deliver a baby in an unsanitary cave!
  1. Mary made three long trips during her pregnancy. Early on, she traveled to see her relative Elizabeth in the “hill country of Judea.” (Luke 1:39). The traditional site of that home is in Ein Kiram, a village just west of Jerusalem. Three months later, she returned to Nazareth. Then, at the last minute, she and Joseph had to make the journey again, this time heading a short distance south of Jerusalem, to Bethlehem. Did she ride a donkey? Your Christmas card might insist she did, but we have no evidence of anything other than a very long walk for a young woman quite accustomed to walking everywhere.
  1. The reason Jesus was born in Bethlehem? Taxes. A Roman census had been ordered, and Joseph was forced to travel to Bethlehem to register. Making yet another argument for a non-winter date for his birth, it would have been highly unlikely for the Romans to order massive travel during the cold, rainy winter. With Bethlehem’s anti-government hostility, it is also possible that one of the reasons Joseph couldn’t get a room in any of the homes was the distaste local residents had for anyone obeying the decree.
  1. Jesus didn’t stay in Bethlehem very long. When Herod the Great got wind of a possible “king” being born in Bethlehem, he ordered all the infants of that area slaughtered. Having been warned in a dream, Mary and Joseph left in the middle of the night for the safety of Egypt and didn’t return until Herod died. Even in their return, they never went to Bethlehem again. Instead, they lived again in Nazareth.
  1. Jesus was born in the shadow of the world’s largest palace. Perhaps it’s the most amazing part of the Christmas story most Christians have never seen. The “Herodium” was a short hike southeast of Bethlehem. It was Herod’s favorite palace and where he was buried not long after Jesus was born. Herod was the richest, cruelest man Israel had ever known. The irony of his man-made mountain fortress standing over a simple Bethlehem cave is one of the most riveting parts of the Christmas story. When magi came looking for the new king, they did not bring their gifts to the Herodium. Instead, they brought their gifts to a baby who had been born in a cave open to the world. Herod died shortly after Jesus was born, and his kingdom was soon reduced to ruins. Jesus, on the other hand, is still worshiped by millions of people as the King of Kings.

Want to see the story? Watch “Searching for Christmas,” a made-for-TV special (28:30) from Experience Israel Now!