Today for many, Christmas is a time for family, eating too much, having a much-needed break from work and watching the 1978 Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special, if only to utter the phrase ‘they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.’
Yet beyond the more indulgent festivities, Christmas remains a deeply religious festival that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. Although it’s widely accepted that the month and day of his birth are unknown, by around 350 AD the Western Christian Church had placed Christmas on December 25th. Every year, as the world’s Christians celebrate religiously and others celebrate culturally, we can all agree that it’s a wonderful time of year for rejoicing, especially if you’re the boss of Amazon.
The geography of Christmas
As you’ll undoubtedly have read here, the roots of Christmas are pagan but of course much of the celebration focuses on the life of Jesus himself. So to truly understand the season, one fascinating area to explore is the geography of Christmas. Where did Jesus live and travel? Which historic sites still exist today that are linked to the life of Jesus? What can you do to explore the physical history of the festive season? Luke and Matthew writing their canonical gospels say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem after his parents, Mary and Joseph arrived there from Nazareth, ‘while shepherds watched their flocks by night.’
‘And then an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were very afraid. But the angel said to them, ‘Listen! Do not fear. For I bring you good news of great joy, which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: You will find the Baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.’
The beginning and the end
The Church of the Nativity
The oldest continuously-worshipped historical site in all of Christianity, The Church of the Nativity was commissioned by Constantine the Great and built between 333 and 339 AD and it is believed to be the actual birthplace of Jesus. It is the oldest major church in the Holy Land and a fourteen-point silver star with the inscription Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est - 1717 (Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary - 1717) was laid by Catholics in 1717, removed (possibly stolen) in 1847 and replaced by the Turkish six years later.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Bookending the life of Jesus, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is believed to be the site where Jesus was crucified. Within the church grounds are the last four stations on the Via Dolorosa, the route it is thought he took to his crucifixion place on the Hill of Calvary, or Golgotha. It was built by Constantine I in 327 AD, after he saw a vision of a cross in 312 and converted to Christianity, and is said to contain Christ’s empty tomb, now enclosed by an opulent shrine called the Edicule built in the 19th century. In a marvellous example of irony, second century Romans went to such great lengths to expunge all evidence of the holy site by building a temple to honour Aphrodite there, they managed to preserve the exact position of the crucifixion.
This is where it gets a bit sketchy. Did Jesus walk on Jerusalem’s cobbled stones? Did he drink from its wells? Virtually all scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus did in fact exist historically although there’s very little agreement on the exact details of the life of Jesus so it’s hard to say with absolute certainty where he actually travelled at various stages of his life. So where else can you go to follow in the footsteps of Christ?
Built in Jerusalem by the Crusaders in the 14th century, Coenaculum is a word used to describe a room in a Roman house where supper (coena) – or the last meal of the day – was taken. Although constructed 1,400 years after the death of Jesus, it’s believed that this was the location of the Last Supper.
The Church of the Primacy of St. Peter
On the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, Tabgha is the location of the fifth century Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes where it is believed Jesus fed the five thousand with two loaves and five fish.
‘They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.’
Matthew 14: 17-21
Church of the Beatitudes
Close to Tabgha on a low hill sits the octagonal Church of the Beatitudes. It was built in 1938 by the Franciscan Sisters but is said to be the place where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, widely considered by many to contain the central tenets of Christian discipleship.
The Greek Orthodox Church of St George
In Cana, the hometown of St Bartholomew, it was here at the wedding of a poor couple that it is said Jesus turned water into wine. According to the Gospel of John, the Virgin Mary was present and on hearing they’d run out of wine (not unusual for a wedding, even today) told her son. He commanded the servants to fill six stone jars with water and when the butler tasted from one, it had been turned into wine. Two of the six stone jars are still there, now housed in the Greek Orthodox Church of St George, built in the late 1890s and it is a popular place for couples to get married or to renew their vows.
Other sites connected to the life of Jesus
The most significant period of the life of Jesus not covered in the New Testament are between his childhood and the start of his ministry – roughly between the ages of 12 and 29. It is generally assumed that he worked with his father Joseph as a carpenter in Galilee and various biblical scholars have attempted to fill the narrative vacuum but there is very little evidence – if any at all – to conclude a cohesive idea of this period of his life.
There are stories from the late 19th century suggesting Jesus left for India at 13 to study the laws of Buddha at the ancient seats of Hindu learning in Puri and Rajgirh. From there it is speculated that he went into the Himalayas to study Buddhism at Tibetan monasteries and then back to Jerusalem via Persia by the age of 29 - but these theories have been almost entirely debunked.
There were also stories that emanated out of the Middle Ages of a young Jesus Christ coming to Britain with Joseph of Arimathea. Specifically, it was claimed he lived in what is now the village of Priddy in the Mendip Hills in Somerset and built the first wattle cabin at Glastonbury. These tales grew out of Arthurian legend where it was supposed Joseph was the first keeper of the Holy Grail but again, these are just stories with very little evidence to back them up.
Other theories exist, including the rather fanciful Dan Brown-esque story that Jesus was crucified alongside Judas Iscariot, survived, married Mary Magdalene, travelled around the Mediterranean before settling and subsequently dying in Rome.
As recently as 1995, it was supposed that Jesus was, in fact, the Teacher of Righteousness mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls and died in 74 AD as the leader of the Jewish forces massacred by the Romans at Masada.
Wherever his life took him, Jesus is Christianity’s central figure and his birthday is celebrated the world over on December 25th. All that’s left is for us to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year!