Growing up, I learnt everything I knew about Christmas from picture book Bibles, Christmas songs over the radio, and the story of Jesus’ birth told over and over again—whether in a TV cartoon, Sunday school plays, or nativity scenes in shopping malls.

Now that I’m a new mum, I’m still learning things about the Christmas story, things I had taken for granted and that I’m discovering were not quite true after all.

Here are five myths about Christmas to bear in mind—and what we can tell our kids instead:

Myth #1: Jesus was born on 25 December.

It seems only logical: if we celebrate Jesus’ birth on 25 December, doesn’t it mean He was born on that day?

The long and short of it is: we don’t know the exact date of Jesus’ birth. Throughout church history, other dates have been suggested, including 21 March, 15 April, and 20 December.

So, how did we arrive at 25 December?

One view is that the church co-opted the pagan holidays of Sol Invictus or Saturnalia, but there’s little evidence for this. In fact, it seems like the early church put little to no emphasis on celebrating Jesus’ birthday—they were far more concerned about the date of His death.

Around AD 200, Tertullian, an early Christian author from Carthage in the western Roman empire, noted that Jesus died on the 14th day of Nisan, the Jewish calendar. This was equivalent to 25 March on the Roman solar calendar.

Meanwhile, Christians in the East made their calculation using the 14th day of the first spring month in their Greek calendar—or 6 April, according to the Roman calendar. So depending on whose calendar you follow, Jesus died on either March 25 (West) or April 6 (East).

Moreover, both the Western and Eastern churches developed the same tradition that Jesus died on the same date he was conceived—in other words, that His death was connected to his birthday.

The early church didn’t think this way on a whim. As American writer Kevin DeYoung observes: “The fact that this curious tradition existed in two different parts of the world suggests it may have been rooted in more than mere speculation. If nothing else . . . these early Christians were borrowing from an ancient Jewish tradition that said that the most important events of creation and redemption occurred at the same time of the year.”

Both the Western and Eastern churches developed the same tradition that Jesus died on the same date he was conceived—in other words, that His death was connected to his birthday.

From these possible dates of Christ’s death—March 25 in the Western church or April 6 in the Eastern church—we arrive at the date of Christmas nine months later: December 25 (yes, we Protestants are part of the Western church) and January 6 respectively. By around AD 300, these two dates were pretty much decided on based on this calculation.

What I might tell my kids instead: We celebrate Jesus’ birth on 25 December, but we don’t know for sure when His birthday was, because the Bible doesn’t tell us. People around the world celebrate His birthday a little differently, and that’s perfectly okay—all of us are remembering and celebrating the birth of Jesus!

Myth #2: A star led the shepherds to baby Jesus.

The bright glimmering star hovering above a newborn Jesus is one of the more common symbols of Christmas. The only problem is, the Bible doesn’t quite say that in connection to the shepherds.

When the angels announced the birth of Jesus to those shepherds tending their flocks, they weren’t told to look for a star—but for Jesus himself: “This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).

Instead, the sign of the star would be given to the Magi, when they visited Jesus at a later time (Matthew 2:2). This seems to have taken place when Jesus was a bit older, as Herod commands the killing of all the babies in the region younger than 2 years old, suggesting that Jesus may have been 2 or younger when he was in Bethlehem.

Moreover, the Greek word Matthew used to describe Jesus was paidion, which could mean an infant or a toddler.

What I might tell my kids instead: There was a star that led people to Jesus—when He was a little older. On the night of Jesus’ birth, the angels only told the shepherds that they’d find Jesus as a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Later on, God gives the wise men the sign of a star, which led them to Jesus (Matthew 2:9).

Myth #3: There were three wise men.

Speaking of the Magi, or wise men, we somehow always imagine that there were three of them. But Matthew 2:1 simply states: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.”

It seems more likely that the idea of there being three wise men came from the fact that Matthew mentions three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).

What I might tell my kids instead: We sometimes come across pictures of three wise men visiting Jesus, but we don’t know for sure how many men there were. The Bible tells us that wise men came from the east to visit Jesus, and brought Him three gifts.

Myth #4: Jesus was born in a stable.

Just the other night, I was reading to my toddler from his picture Bible, which had an illustration of baby Jesus surrounded by animals looking on: “All the nice, big homes and clean hotels were filled up with people . . . God’s forever King was born in a stable, a place for animals. What a strange place for the Promised One! Who would have imagined it?”

A lot of people, including myself, apparently. The story goes that Joseph and Mary couldn’t find a place at the inn, and so had no choice but to stay in a stable.

One Bible translation tells us that Mary “laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7 NASB). English theologian Ian Paul argues that the Greek word kataluma, usually translated as “inn”, means a reception or guest room in a private house—the same word used to describe the “upper room” where Jesus and His disciples ate the last supper (Luke 22:11).

In contrast, a different Greek word, pandocheion, was used to describe an “inn” or any other place where strangers are welcomed (that was the word used in the parable of the Good Samaritan).

Jesus was likely born not in a separate stable or barn, but in the lower floor of a house, where animals were kept—likely at the home of Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem.

“The actual design of Palestinian homes (even to the present day) makes sense of the whole story,” Ian Paul writes. “Most families would live in a single-room house, with a lower compartment for animals to be brought in at night, and either a room at the back for visitors, or space on the roof. The family living area would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with straw, in the living area, where the animals would feed.”

This means that Jesus was likely born not in a separate stable or barn, but in the lower floor of a house, where animals were kept—likely at the home of Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem. And it’s possible that the guest room they stayed in might have been too small for Mary to give birth in (hence the explanation in Luke 2:7 that there was “no room for them” there).

That’s why it’s more likely that Mary actually gave birth in the larger family room before laying Jesus in the nearby manger, or feed trough—a makeshift cradle of sorts.

What I might tell my kids instead: Yes, baby Jesus was put in a manger, but He wasn’t born in a stable. Jesus was probably born in the house of Joseph’s relative, where animals stayed at night, too.

Myth #5: Jesus was born on AD 1.

If BC stands for “before Christ”, isn’t AD 1 the year He was born?

I didn’t know this for the longest time, but AD stands for anno domini, a Latin phrase meaning “in the year of the Lord”, marking time from the year of Jesus’ birth.

Here’s where it gets confusing.

Matthew 2:1 tells us that Jesus was born during the days of Herod the king. However, most historians place Herod’s death in 4 BC. Since Herod would have ordered all boys under two to be killed before his death, Jesus would have been born sometime between 4 to 6 BC (wait, what?!).

Some of the confusion stems from the coining of the AD system by a Christian monk named Dionysius Exiguus of Scythia Minor. He attempted to set AD 1 as the year of Jesus’ birth but was off in his estimation by a few years—since we now know that Jesus’ birth likely happened around 4 to 6 BC.

The BC system, on the other hand, was created two centuries after Dionysius, when Bede of Northumbria, an English monk and historian, published a book that popularised the AD system and expanded it to include the years before AD 1. Prior years were numbered to count backward, indicating the years an event had occurred “before Christ” or “BC”.

What I might tell my kids instead: Jesus wasn’t born in AD 1, but probably sometime between 4 to 6 BC. Measuring time is tricky, and some people who came up with the AD and BC dating systems miscalculated the year of Jesus’ birth (it’s not just Mama’s math that’s bad!).

The Bigger Picture

While there are things we might get mixed up about in the Christmas story, there’s one thing we can teach our kids that will never be wrong: God sent His one and only Son to be born on this earth, to live among us, to die for our sins, and to rise and set us free—so we can have eternal life in and with Him.

This Christmas, let’s continue pointing our children to greatest gift God has given to us: Jesus himself!

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Wendy is a writer, wife, and mother. She was a TV journalist and radio producer once upon a time, but has since traded in the newsroom for the quiet joys of family life. She hopes to grow as a daughter of God, and to glorify Him through her life and words. Her perfect day includes peanut butter, time with Jesus, and a good cuddle with her family.
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