Some Wrappings of Christmas

Christmas in America has so many facets, traditions, and activities. It is enough to keep people busy for weeks! Some things are soundly biblical — Jesus was born in Bethlehem; Mary, his mother, was a virgin; shepherds were summoned by angels to visit the manger; and some time later, Magi from the land of the rising sun came to worship.

Other things are not Christian but are basically innocent practices. There are some Christmas trappings that we sing or celebrate that are not unbiblical but are factually incorrect. It is clear from Scripture that these Magi from the east (Persia, Babylon, etc.) came to visit Jesus and His parents. However, the Bible does not say there were three. They did bring three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Most Bible students put the number of the wise men between 12 and as many as 50 to 100. The assumption is that these men with such valuable cargo would have had several guards and possibly some type of military escort.

When they arrived in Jerusalem, Herod “was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:2). It is highly improbable that the king and all Jerusalem would be troubled by three men. However, if this group did number many highly trained soldiers, it would definitely shake him up!

They were not “wise men” — and the Scripture does not call them wise men, but Magi. They were students of astronomy/astrology — men of science and learning. Many believe Daniel was a Magi when he served in the Babylonian empire. In fact, some scholars believe he was the wisest of the Magi. The Magi saw “His star in the east” and came to worship Him. As students of the stars, they knew the constellations well. When they saw a new star, it absolutely got their attention. It led them to Jerusalem. They came with the explicit purpose to worship the newborn baby. Somehow, they had become familiar with God (some believe through the influence of Daniel).

Exactly where they came from is unknown, except that it was from the east. They traveled a great distance, and by the time they got to Jerusalem to ask Herod the striking question, “Where is He who is born King of the Jews?” Jesus was in a house with Mary and Joseph and no longer in a stable. They were wise — or at least highly educated men in science, agriculture, mathematics, history, astronomy, and more. In Babylon, they were among the highest-ranking officials.

How old was Jesus when this group came to visit? He was more than a newborn and likely less than two years old. The angel told the shepherds they would “find a baby, wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger,” or feeding trough (Luke 2:12). The Greek word brephos means “a newborn baby or young child.” However, when the Magi came to Jerusalem, a different Greek word is used, paidion — which means “a baby or child up to the age of two or more.” Matthew 2:11 says, “After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshipped Him.” A short time after the visit of the Magi, Herod was angry because these scholars did not report back to him. Matthew 2:16 says, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the Magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the Magi.” He wanted to be sure he was eliminating any possible usurper to his throne.

The gifts they brought — gold, frankincense, and myrrh — would have been worth a lot of money and could have been used by the couple to help with their living expenses.

In our Christmas tradition, we sing a song called, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” or “The Three Kings.” The Christmas carol was written by John Henry Hopkins Jr., rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williams Port, Pa., in 1857. It was written for a Christmas pageant and included in his book, “Carols, Hymns, and Songs,” in 1862. It is still sung during the Christmas season but was originally designed to be sung toward the end of the 12 days of Christmas — between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6 on the Feast of The Epiphany, which commemorates the arrival of the Magi. All of that is interesting, but none of it can be found in Scripture.

With the passage of time, the “three kings” were given names: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar. Even though the song and the three names are fictional, the song continues to endure from season to season.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is another interesting song we sing at Christmas. It is believed to be composed for Catholic children as a hidden catechism. It is a highly symbolic carol that was probably based on a type of memory-and-forfeit song where verse after verse is added to each round of singing. Games were developed from this type of song where a reader would stand in the middle of a circle of kids. Each child had to repeat the verse, and each verse that was added. If someone missed, they were out.

The symbols of each verse of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are meant to describe various facets of the Christian faith. It is probably Catholic in its origin, at least according to the Catholic News Service.

A Partridge in a Pear Tree — Christ
Two Turtle Doves — The Old and New Testaments
Three French Hens — Faith, Hope, and Love
Four Calling Birds — The four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)
Five Golden Rings — The first five books of the Old Testament (The Pentateuch)
Six Geese-a-Laying — The six days of creation
Seven Swans-a-Swimming — Seven gifts of the Spirit (prophecy, serving, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and mercy)
Eight Maids-a-Milking — The eight Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10)
Nine Ladies Dancing — Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control
Ten Lords-a-Leaping — The Ten Commandments
Eleven Pipers Piping — The 11 faithful disciples
Twelve Drummers Drumming — The 12 points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed

Finally, we celebrate Dec. 25 as the day Jesus was born. However, the Bible is silent on our Lord’s birthday. Dec. 25 was already a strong pagan holiday before Emperor Constantine “legalized” Dec. 25 as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

The pagan feast of worshipping Saturn, the sun god, was filled with excessive drunkenness, lasciviousness, and partying that the pagans had embraced. The Dec. 25 date for the celebration of Christ’s birthday was meant to offset a time of debauchery. Augustine encouraged Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25, “not like the heathen who celebrated the sun, but on account of Him who created the sun.”

In America, our Christmas season is a mixture of commercialism, secularism, and paganism — but with the unescapable reminder of the birth of Christ. It is a season for gift giving and enjoying the company of family and friends. It is also a great opportunity to worship the resurrected Lord and bear witness to the gospel. Why celebrate Christmas? It is fun, but it is also an obvious time to have those much-talked-about gospel conversations.

Merry Christmas! In the opportunities God gives us all, let’s share the truth not only that Jesus was born, but that He died to pay the price for our sin, was resurrected from the dead, and will live in anyone who is born again by faith in Him alone.