Christmas is a few weeks away, and that means it’s time to spread all our favorite Christmas myths, like the myth that Santa Claus punched Arius over the doctrine of the Trinity. Here are a few of my favorite fun or interesting Christmas myths.
Myth: Santa Claus is just a secular figure.
Reality: Santa Claus has become a secular figure, but he is based on a Christian saint, Saint Nicholas, who was a strong defender of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. A comical myth holds that feisty old Saint Nick slapped or punched the heretic Arius in the face at the First Council of Nicaea. Saint Nicholas is honored on December 6 in churches throughout the world. According to Adam C. English, author of The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus,
There are many parallels between the St. Nicholas stories and other saint folktales. To me, the story that stands out as unique is of St. Nicholas’s gifts of the dowries. He visits the home of three girls who are in desperate financial straits, and he delivers a bag of gold so that they have money to get married. And he does it anonymously and at night. You don’t find anything like it in the stories of contemporary saints of the time, nor in other folklore.
Saint Nick’s association with children came much later:
There is a story that arose in the Middle Ages about him saving three youths from death: Three young children go into an evil inn-keeper’s inn and are butchered and pickled in barrels, and then Nicholas comes along and restores them to life. It’s with that story that his association with children begins.
Myth: X-mas takes the Christ out of Christmas.
Reality: For centuries, Christians have used “X” as an abbreviation for Christ, since the first Greek letter for Christ in the New Testament (Χριστός) looks like an “X.” Lifeway research reports that “the first use of X in an abbreviation for Christmas dates all the way back to an Anglo-Saxon scribe in 1021, who wrote ‘XPmas’ as shorthand.” Matthew Schmitz calls X-mas “The Ancient and Grand Abbreviation” for Christmas. I often use “X” as an abbreviation for Christ (e.g., in the margin of my Bible to mark a verse with special Christological significance). It’s an ancient and sacred symbol.
Myth: Jesus was born on December 25.
Reality: The actual date of Christ’s birth is unknown. Michael Kruger explains, “It seems early Christians may have reasoned from the supposed date of Mary’s conception, which was thought to be March 25—the same day Jesus was thought to be crucified. Fast forward nine months and you land on December 25 for his birth.”
Myth: The Christmas season is the weeks leading up to Christmas Day.
Reality: Technically, the weeks leading up to Christmas Day are the Advent season, while the Christmas season is the 12-day season of celebration (think of the song “12 Days of Christmas”) that begins on December 25 and ends on January 5, the day before the Western church’s celebration of the wise men’s arrival on January 6 (a holiday called Epiphany). The Advent season is focused on waiting and watching for Christ’s coming; the Christmas season is focused on celebrating that Christ has come.
Myth: There were three wise men or kings who came from the Orient.
Reality: We don’t know how many wise men there were; they were probably interpreters of astrological signs and dreams, not kings or “wise” men in the modern sense of the word; and they likely came from Persia, Arabia (Syria/Jordan, not Saudi Arabia), or Babylonia, not from the Orient (eastern Asia), explains Greg Lanier. The number three comes from the number of gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh).
Myth: An innkeeper turned Mary and Joseph away, so Jesus had to be born in a barn or stable behind the inn.
Reality: The Bible has no record of an innkeeper. This idea comes from Luke 2:7, which says that “there was no place for them in the inn”; however, the word commonly translated as “inn” (κατάλυμα) may also be translated “guest room” or “place to stay.” For example, the same word is used to refer to the room where Jesus ate the Last Supper with his disciples (Luke 22:11). Furthermore, “it was common for mangers to be kept in the main room of village houses during this time period … because the animals were often housed just a few feet away in an adjacent room. It seems likely, then, that Mary gave birth to Jesus while they were staying at the home of Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem. But the room in which they stayed—likely a tight guest room or hastily added chamber—couldn’t accommodate a birth. So, Mary had to give birth in the larger family room and lay Jesus in the nearby manger” (Kruger).
Myth (sort of): “Joy to the World” is a Christmas song.
Reality: “Joy to the World” has certainly become a Christmas song, and its words are fitting for the season; however, Isaac Watts didn’t intend for it to be one. Watts wrote the text as a paraphrase of Psalm 98, which says, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; … make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!” Watts interpreted Psalm 98 in light of Christ and his Second Coming, when King Jesus will return to restore the earth. He published it in his Psalms of David Imitated (1719) under the heading “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” Only later was it sung to celebrate Christ’s first coming at Christmas.
What are your favorite Christmas myths?