No matter your religious beliefs — whether you’re devout, doubtful or downright atheist — you’re probably familiar with the Christmas story. From carols streaming through shopper-clogged malls to families trimming their trees to pundits debating whether there’s a “war on Christmas,” the holiday is ever-present at this time of year. But its history, significance and traditions are sometimes misunderstood. Let’s clarify what the yuletide is all about.
1. Christmas is the most important Christian holiday.
For all the cards sent and trees decorated — to say nothing of all the Nativity scenes displayed — Christmas is not the most important date on the Christian calendar. Easter, the day on which Christians believe Christ rose from the dead, has more religious significance than does Dec. 25. Christ’s resurrection means not just that one man conquered death, nor was it simply proof of Jesus’ divinity to his followers; it holds out the promise of eternal life for all who believe in him. If Christmas is the season opener, Easter is the Super Bowl.
The two holidays’ relative importance is even reflected in the church’s liturgical calendar. The Christmas season lasts 12 days, as all carolers know, ending with Epiphany, a feast day in early January commemorating the Wise Men’s visit to the infant Jesus. The Easter season, on the other hand, lasts 50 days. On Sundays during Eastertide, Christians hear dramatic stories of the post-resurrection appearances of Christ to his astonished followers.
The overriding importance of Easter is simple: Anyone can be born, but not everyone can rise from the dead.
2. There is biblical consensus on the story of Jesus’ birth.
Even knowledgeable Christians may expect to find the familiar story of Christmas in each of the four Gospels: the journey of Mary on a donkey accompanied by Saint Joseph, the child’s birth in a manger surrounded by animals, shepherds and angels, with the Wise Men appearing shortly afterward.
But two of the Gospels say nothing about Jesus’ birth. The Gospel of Mark — the earliest of the Gospels, written roughly 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion — does not have a word about the Nativity. Instead it begins with the story of John the Baptist, who announces the impending arrival of the adult Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel of John is similarly silent about Jesus’ birth.
The two Gospels that do mention what theologians call the “infancy narratives” differ on some significant details. Matthew seems to describe Mary and Joseph as living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt and then moving to Nazareth. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, has the two originally living in Nazareth, traveling to Bethlehem in time for the birth and then returning home. Both Gospels, though, place Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem.
3. Jesus was an only child.
Catholics, myself included, believe that Mary’s pregnancy came about miraculously — what we call the “virgin birth.” (Frankly, this has always been easy for me to accept: If God can create the universe from nothing, then a virgin birth seems relatively simple by comparison.) Catholics also believe that Mary remained a virgin her entire life, though many Protestants do not.
So when Catholics stumble upon Gospel passages that speak of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, they are often confused. In the Gospel of Luke, someone tells Jesus: “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” In Mark’s Gospel, people from Nazareth exclaim: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? . . . Are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?” Even Saint Paul called James “the Lord’s brother.”
These passages are sometimes explained away by saying that these are Jesus’ friends, relatives, half-brothers or, most often, cousins. But there is a perfectly good word for “cousins” in Greek, which Mark and Luke could have used instead of “adelphoi,” meaning “brothers.” Many Catholic scholars maintain that Jesus indeed had brothers and sisters — perhaps through an earlier marriage of Joseph. So a virgin birth, but (step-) brothers and sisters.
4. The secularization of Christmas is a recent phenomenon.
Whenever I see a Macy’s ad imploring shoppers to “believe,” I want to stab someone with a candy cane. What does Macy’s want us to believe in, anyway? I doubt it’s the incarnation.
However, worries about diluting Christmas’ meaning go much further back than recent memory. Gift-giving, for example, was seen as problematic as early as the Middle Ages, when the church frowned on the practice for its supposed pagan origins.
More recently, some religious leaders in the 1950s fretted about the use of the term “Xmas” (which, depending on whom you believe, either substitutes a tacky “X” for Christ or uses the Greek letter chi, an ancient abbreviation for the word). The first few Christmas stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service in the early 1960s featured not the familiar Madonna and Child, but a bland wreath, an anodyne Christmas tree and sprigs of greenery.
And some of the most beloved “Christmas” TV shows from the 1960s — “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — have little to do with the birth of Christ and are more about vague holiday celebrations and, mostly, gifts.
Linus’ famous recitation from Luke’s Gospel in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the exception in pop culture, not the rule. The overt religiosity of that scene, which flowed from the faith of Charles Schulz, drew criticism even at its first airing in 1965, as David Michaelis detailed in his 2008 biography of the cartoonist, “Schulz and Peanuts.”
5. Midnight Mass is at midnight.
One of the hoariest Catholic jokes — “What time is midnight Mass?” — is no longer so funny. Midnight Mass, traditionally the first celebration of the Christmas liturgy, is also when Saint Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is read aloud. Recently, however, many churches have moved up their celebrations — first to 10 p.m., then to 8 p.m., and now as early as 4 p.m.
Why? For one thing, churches are packed on Christmas Day. Second, the elderly and families with children may find it easier to attend services on the 24th, so as not to conflict with the following day’s festivities. As a result, some parishes are cutting back on Masses on Christmas Day.
One parent recently told me: “We like to get Mass out of the way so that we can focus on the gifts.” (So, by moving Masses further from Dec. 25, churches may be contributing to the secularization of Christmas.) This trend prompted a pastor in New Jersey to send a missive this year noting that Christmas Eve Masses would be at 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and midnight — “as in the real midnight.”
James Martin, a Jesuit priest and culture editor of America magazine, is the author of “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.”