This week we call into question some of the Christmas traditions we've always taken from granted. These come from parishioners, e-mail, and others who have wondered from time to time about some of the Christmas story, but the answers would have been too short to devote a whole Pastor's Ponderings to.
"Did Mary ride on a donkey to Bethlehem?" Almost every picture ever painted of the holy family commuting from Nazareth to Bethlehem shows Mary sidesaddle on a donkey and Joseph leading the animal.
The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about 90 miles, given the circuitous route they would have taken to avoid crossing Samaria. Although this was a long, arduous journey, many faithful Jewish people made the journey to Jerusalem every year for Passover, a trek of nearly the same distance. The modes of transportation of that day (in order of wealth and stature) included litter, chariot, horse, camel, donkey, and foot. If the holy family had been wealthy then Mary would have ridden in a litter while Joseph would probably have ridden a horse. On the other hand, fact that they couldn't find lodgings in Bethlehem lends some credence that Mary and Joseph were probably of limited means and so Mary would probably have ridden a donkey, if their finances would have allowed it, and Joseph would have walked. Still, we can't be sure.
"Did the three wise-men visit Jesus in the manger?" I'm told that we know these were wise men because they were willing to stop in Jerusalem to ask directions. However, in this question there are two traditions founded in myth.
First, the Bible nowhere says there were three magi or three kings or three anything. All we know is there were at least two astrologers who came from the east (India? Arabia? China?) and who brought three gifts of great value to the "King of the Jews." There could have as few as two or as many as a full caravan of people visiting the holy family in Bethlehem.
Secondly, it is clear they didn't visit Jesus in the stable. Indeed, Matthew writes that the holy family was staying "in a house" by the time they arrived (Matthew 2.11). Indeed, Jesus may have been nearly two years old by the time the magi visited, since King Herod decreed that all infant males in Bethlehem two years or under should be put to death because he feared for his throne.
There are a number of other traditions we hold dear that have no basis in fact. The animals almost certainly did not start speaking on Christmas day. Although Jesus almost certainly did cry at his birth. Probably no drummer boy showed up to play for him and Jesus was probably born in the spring, not in the dead of winter so close to the winter solstice and the time we celebrate his birth.
And yet the heart of Christmas is in tact and the facts are much less important than the truth. The scriptures attest that Jesus was born in some sort of stable in Bethlehem, that there were shepherds who came on the eve of his birth to marvel at the child, that they went and told everyone they could find (and perhaps a little drummer boy heard the glad tidings from the shepherds), the magi did visit Jesus, and the first witnesses to Jesus' birth was a stable full of animals.
May the spirit of the holy-day fill your life with the warmth of the Christmas story.