Christmas Traditions or Christmas?
We now enter the wonderful time of the year we call Christmas. It has been described as magical. Christmas is the decorations, the Christmas tree, the lights, and family get-togethers. During this year, travel and visiting have been discouraged, but many feel they can not have Christmas without gatherings.
But, we have surrounded Christmas with these traditions. Let's look at the first, true Christmas.
Please journey back with me for more than 2000 years to Nazareth.
In the custom at that time, parents could betroth their daughters as young as 13. They wanted to have an older, stable man making a good income for their child. We do not know how old Mary was when her parents betrothed her, but scholars think that she was likely about 15. The parents decided on Joseph, a carpenter, who was around 30 years of age (according to Bible scholars).
The couple would not date nor be alone together. If Joseph decided Mary was suitable, he would agree to the marriage. Some parents would allow the girl a say in the matter, and some parents would not.
A betrothal is more than an engagement but not quite a full marriage. The marriage ceremony would come a year after the betrothal, at which Mary would enter Joseph's home. During the betrothal, Mary's mother would instruct her on her duties as a wife and prepare what we would call a hope chest. Tradition indicates Mary was 15 or 16 when she entered Joseph's house.
Now, for a miracle. After Mary is betrothed, around 15, and is living with her parents, she is visited by an angel. She is told the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and she will bear the Son of God. We can read her answer, and it is beautiful, but imagine how overwhelming the news would be to a teenage girl. Think about when you were a teen.
Did she tell her parents? If so, did they believe her? We do not know. We know she went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who immediately knows and confirms that Mary will have a child, and the child will be God. This may have helped Mary's confidence and faith. Were her parents with her to hear what Elizabeth said? We don't know. To visit Elizabeth, she would travel 80 to 90 miles, so Mary would not travel to Elizabeth's home by herself. People traveled in groups or caravans for safety. Plus, she would need to be chaperoned. Scholars think she stayed for three months.
When Mary returned to Nazareth, she was likely showing that she was pregnant. Joseph found out. He thought of disbanding the betrothal quietly. A Jewish woman could be stoned or burned to death if she were pregnant and not married. Joseph did not want this for Mary or shame for her parents. He decided to send Mary away quietly, where she would not be known. But then he had a dream. It must have been One Powerful Dream to have him set aside his beliefs and traditions and take Mary as his wife into his house. Although they were now living together, he did not know her as a wife.
Mary is likely going through what all pregnant women go through. She could have had morning sickness, tiredness, and other discomfits.
Then the news comes the men must go to their ancestral home to be counted for the census. Joseph's ancestors were from Bethlehem. It is 90 miles from Nazareth. We don't know where Mary's ancestors were from, but they didn't care about the women in that day.
Scholars think Mary is now in her ninth month of pregnancy. We don't know if Mary rode a donkey, but some paintings suggest she did, at least on their way to Egypt after Jesus was born. If Joseph had enough money to have a donkey, Mary could ride it, likely bareback and with both legs on one side.
Because the dirt road goes through rough territory, frequented by bears, mountain lions, wild boar, and thieves, the people would travel in groups. On foot, most people would cover 20 miles in a day. We do not know if Joseph and Mary could keep up that pace. Some scholars think it was closer to ten miles a day. Each day the donkey clops, clops, and clops. Most of the way to Bethlehem is uphill and then down. The donkey lurches forward, making his rider lean forward up a long steep hill, and then the animal goes down the hill, forcing the rider to lean back. The swaying back and forth and side to side is not pleasant when nine months pregnant. Riding a donkey is unpleasant, even when not pregnant, and it often balks and quits when it wants to do so. Riding might have been the last choice of the options. Most people chose to walk. Wives walked three paces behind the husbands. Did Mary? I like to think Joseph would walk with Mary and support her over the rough spots, which were many.
They likely took bread and water in wineskins with them, and it was the custom that if travelers stopped at a village or farm, the people would give them shelter. With many people traveling, did Mary and Joseph get shelter?
They may have worn heavy woolen cloaks, and under them, long robes belted at the waist. On their feet, they may have had tube-like socks and sandals with enclosed toes.
The trip would have taken more than a week for the nine-month pregnant teenage Mary and Joseph to get to Bethlehem. If Joseph had relatives living in the small town, they must not have been able to help as he had to go to the inns. They, too, were full. So, they were permitted to lodge in a stable. Most stables were caves in the mountains around the town. As the inns were crowded, the stable caves could have more than one family in them. The animals were likely more donkeys from travelers. Sheep would be in the pasture with the shepherds.
The caves would be smelly with the animals and old straw. Joseph may have found clean straw and then put their heavy woolen cloaks on it for Mary to lay on. The light was likely a torch (a large stick with one end covered with rags and dipped in tar or oil and lit) which was very smelly, or an oil lamp, which also smelled, or candles which would not be good with so much straw about. This smell would not help a pregnant woman. If there was no light in the stable when they got there, they would have to get fire from someone (remember, no one had matches). The light would cast eerie flickering shadows on the cold walls.
Jesus decides to come into the human world. If there were other women in the stable, they might have helped Mary, or Joseph may have found a midwife. I wonder if Mary wishes she was home with her mother and family (tradition says Christmas is all about home and family, and although we are told not to travel, many people still do). Mary had to travel under challenging conditions, which took her away from her family. The first Christmas was without her family.
Going through the pain of natural childbirth, she yells and cries. With all its uncertainties and fears in a strange city, her first childbirth, among strangers, with an older man who is her husband that she doesn't know, she becomes a mother.
Jesus enters the world as most babies do. He is no different. He is human. He cries, his face is red, his hands are scrunched up, his toes are curled, and his hair is wet.
After he is cleaned up, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and given to his mother, he is soon nursing. Later he is laid in the manger, not made of wood as the animals would chew on it. It is made of stone. Cold stone.
This is the miracle of Christmas. It is not the traditions we put on it (which I do enjoy very much).
This is God becoming a human, experiencing everything we experience, and finally lifting our burden of sin so we can become God's family.
The Miracle of Christmas is the best and really is all of it.
As always, send me your thoughts. Love to hear from you.