It’s that time of the year when words like festive, yuletide and merry begin circulating our vocabulary again. Tinsel and fairy lights have awoken from their slumber and mince pies are stacking up in our supermarkets once more.
It is of course Christmas time, one of the world’s most popular holidays, steeped in tradition and folklore. Christmas is so laden with tradition that separating fact from fiction has become quite the challenge.
So let’s grab a cup of mulled wine, cosy up to the fire and debunk some of the season’s most famous myths.
Myth: Jesus was born on Christmas Day
Quite simply put, no he wasn’t. The exact date the Son of God was born is not stated anywhere in the Gospels, so we cannot say for sure when the event occurred. It almost certainly didn’t take place during the colder months of the year, as realistically shepherds wouldn’t have been tending their flocks in deep winter.
So why do we celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December? Some historians believe it was because that date fell during the winter solstice, an already established pagan tradition that was later Christianised.
Another theory suggests we have a 3rd century AD Roman scholar called Hippolytus to thank. He assumed Jesus was conceived on the 25th March during the Spring Equinox, due to the presence of shepherds and sheep. He then worked forward nine months to find a birth date and landed on 25th December.
Myth: There were Three Kings
Three kings did not visit Jesus when he was a child. They were not referred to as kings in the Bible but ‘magi’ (wise men). Neither were there three of them. The scriptures never actually give a number, only that there was more than one, so for all we know there could have been 500 of them. The assumption of three came from the list of gifts they were said to have brought – gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Also, the wise men did not visit baby Jesus in a stable but in a house where only his mother was present. The Bible gives no indication how long after the birth they arrived, so it could well have been months later that the wise men brought their gifts.
Myth: Mary rode on a donkey to Bethlehem
Continuing from the last point, a lot of what we believe about Jesus' birth is not true to the Bible. For starters, there was no ‘little donkey’ carrying the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem. The Bible only mentions that Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem together, it does not specify what Mary rode on. The most likely form of transport at the time would probably have been horse, camel or animal-drawn cart. If there were a donkey it would probably have been used for carrying their things.
Myth: An innkeeper turned Joseph and Mary away
Nowhere in the Bible is the innkeeper who turned Joseph and Mary away mentioned. His addition to the Nativity story is complete fiction. Some scholars also believe that the Greek word kataluma has incorrectly been translated as ‘inn’ when in fact it means ‘guestroom’. They believe this suggests that Joseph and Mary were travelling to see family in Bethlehem. When they arrived, they discovered the guestroom in the home of a family member was full. So perhaps the inn itself is also complete fiction.
Myth: Jesus was born in a stable
Again, there is no mention of Jesus being born in a stable in the Bible, just that he was wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger after his birth. Mangers are troughs used for feeding animals, so it’s likely, given the previous point, Mary gave birth in the lower levels of a family house due to overcrowding in the guestroom.
Myth: Jingle Bells is a Christmas song
Hold onto your ball-balls, what you’re about to read will burst a few festive bubbles! Believe it or not, the Christmas classic 'Jingle Bells' is not a song about the festive season. Written in 1857 by American James Pierpont, the song was originally called 'One Horse Open Sleigh' and was meant to be about Thanksgiving. If you listen carefully not once does the song mention Christmas, neither do carol singers ever venture into the song's very un-festive second verse:
A day or two ago
I tho't I'd take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side.
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we - we got upshot.
Decades after its creation the song gradually became associated with Christmas and its second verse was all but forgotten.
Myth: Writing ‘Xmas’ is a modern thing
It’s the shorthand version of Christmas that people love to hate. Some will use it; others declare it a festive crime to write Christmas in such an irreligious modern fashion. The truth of the matter is Xmas has been a perfectly respectful way of writing Christmas for centuries. Whilst scholars disagree exactly when the word first appeared, the overall consensus places it somewhere between the 1200s and 1500s. The first letter of ‘Christ’ in Greek translates to ‘X’, which has been an acceptable representation of the word Christ for hundreds of years.
Myth: Father Christmas wears red because of Coca-Cola
At some point or another, you’ll likely have come across this urban legend. Yes Father Christmas wears red, yes the colour of a Coca-Cola is red, yes Father Christmas has featured in Coca-Cola adverts for years but no, Coca-Cola cannot take credit for the colour of Santa’s outfit.
Whilst it is true that in the early 1930s Coca-Cola began using Santa in advertising campaigns wearing a red coat, this depiction of him had been around since the 19th century.
In the 1870s, American cartoonist Thomas Nast, who was a German immigrant, began drawing Santa in the outfit we imagine him in today - red coat, red hat with white fur lining and a buckled black belt around his waist.
By the time Coca-Cola came to their 1930s ad campaign, the image of jolly old Santa was already well established in the public consciousness thanks to the original drawings of Nash