The Date of the Nativity
The date of the Nativity is unclear. Many scholars believe the date was influenced more by the Romans Winter Solstice celebrations, when Pope Julius I chose the date of December 25th. Clues from the New Testament put the birth of Jesus in the spring, shepherds were staying out in the fields overnight when Jesus was born (Luke 2:8), as winter would have been to cold for them to do this. As for the year of his birth, this too is unclear. King Herod the Great, a major figure in the Nativity, died in the spring of 4BC, four years before Jesus’ birth. It is possible that Jesus was actually born around 6 to 5BC, but no historian is certain.
According to the Gospels
According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, there are common elements, regarding the birth of Jesus. Whether fact or myth, these elements make up the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, commonly known as the Nativity. These common elements are; Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a descendant of King David, Mary was the Mother of Jesus and that the Holy Spirit was the father and not Joseph. Yet John and Mark do not mention the birth, which has lead to some modern scholars suggesting the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, as pious fictions.
There are conflicts within the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, for example did Joseph travel from Nazareth as Luke suggests or as Matthew wrote he was already in Bethlehem. The Angel was in Joseph’s dream according to Matthew advising him that ‘she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’, but according to Luke, it was in Mary’s.
Conflicts aside and combining the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, they create the story that has now been passed down through the generations. The story that school children would be familiar with.
From Nazareth, Joseph a carpenter and his wife Mary travelled to the town of Bethlehem. So they could register for the Quirinius census (for the purpose of Roman taxes). Bethlehem was the home of Joseph’s ancestors. It is here that Jesus was born in a manger, probably not a man made structure but more likely a position carved in the side of a hill and not in a stable. If it were in a stable the reason was because there was no place for them in the inn. Due to the census all the inns in Bethlehem were full.
After the birth of Jesus he was visited by the Magi, the wise men or kings. It is not known how many Magi there were but as a result of the three known gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, tradition has use believe there were three. Tradition also dictates that the three gifts were bought by Balthasar (meaning May Bel, protect his life.), Melchior (meaning The King of Light) and Caspar (meaning Master of the Treasure). They came to pay homage to the New King of the Jews. According to the author of Matthew, the birth of Jesus took place during the reign of Herod the Great. It was under Herod’s orders that he had all the male children of Bethlehem executed. As a result of the prophecy told to him by the Magi, that a new King of the Jews was to be born in the town. Hence when the Magi did not deliver the new king to him, he placed the order to have the male children executed. It was the Star of Bethlehem that the Magi followed, which they said announced the birth of the new king. It is this knowledge of the star, that makes many believe that they were indeed astrologists.
The baby Jesus was also visited by some local shepherds. The shepherds had been visited by an angel who said, “Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people: Today your Savoir is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” So according to Luke the shepherds quickly made their way to Bethlehem. The order at which the Magi or the shepherds arrived appears to be dictated by tradition, first the Magi (wise men) then the shepherds.
Saint Francis of Assisi and the Nativity
It is St. Francis of Assisi who is credited with the re-enactment of the Nativity in Greccio, Italy, 1223. It was his attempt to place emphasis on the worship of Jesus’ birth and the importance of Christmas than just a time for gift giving. He staged his Nativity in a cave and for the Biblical roles he cast humans and animals. It was meet with approval by Pope Honorius III, who gave it his blessing.