Rethinking the Christmas Story

by Rachel Pieh Jones on December 17, 2014

*edited and reposted from the original Rethinking the Nativity on Djibouti Jones and I encourage you to read the comments there.

I am tired of the Christmas story.

Clarification: I’m tired of the way I keep hearing it and seeing it and reading it. Of course I’m tired of the way consumerism has hijacked this holy day but that’s not what I mean. I mean the typical western religious take on the Christmas story. Living in the developing world, in a place where women give birth at home, in a culture much closer to the culture of Jesus’ location and time in history, has changed the way I read the Bible.

Let’s think about how the story is presented in thousands of movies, children’s pageants, poems, novels, and kid’s books every year:

Joseph is a chump. He gets pushed around by some angels and then makes the totally irresponsible decision to drag a pregnant woman in her late third trimester to a town miles and miles away, on foot or maybe on a donkey. He plans this trip so poorly that they barely make it to Bethlehem on time and while Mary is (silently and peacefully) enduring labor pains, he is knocking on the doors of the local Sheraton and Holiday Inns. Apparently though Joseph is from this town, he no longer has any connections or relationship with people there so not only is he irresponsible, he must have been quite the jerk.

The streets are empty, no one sees this pregnant woman and harried man, no one cares until the hapless innkeeper reluctantly allows the couple to use his filthy, though warm and well-supplied with soft, cuddly hay, stable out back.

Mary gives birth, alone, the umbilical cord is magically cut, the placenta just disappears, though Joseph would have had no idea what to do with it and Mary would have been in no state to direct him. The baby has this funny glowing circle over his head, doesn’t cry at all, is wrapped in a dirty, torn blanket (or miraculously white and spotless blanket, depending), and is perhaps licked by the barn animals.

Some shepherds come and see the baby and the parents living in the filth and stink of an animal barn and leave rejoicing.

This makes for beautiful paintings, poetry, songs, and children’s plays. But does it fit the cultural norms? More importantly, is it what the Bible teaches?

the christmas story

How about this instead? (for more on this, read This Advent Season, A Look at the Real Setting) I’m not trying to add to the Biblical text, I’m not saying this is what happened. I am simply attempting to imagine another perspective.

Joseph, a man of courage and faith, realizes that his fiancee is in serious trouble. Legally, she could be stoned any day by the villagers because she is pregnant and not married. He is not required to bring Mary along to be counted in the census because she is a woman but he decides to tie his name to hers, tie his reputation to hers, and saves her life by taking her out of the village until the baby is born and emotions can simmer down. Who knows if they walked or rode donkeys but there is a distinct possibility that they rode in a cart. In any case, they arrived in Bethlehem before the day of Jesus’ birth. The Bible says: While they were there the time came for Mary to give birth. The Bible does not say: the moment they arrived they frantically pounded on doors because Mary was dilated to 10cm.

He is wise, planned ahead, and is a hero. Not merely a background character, indistinguishable from shepherds in most nativity scenes.

It is hard to imagine that a working man of integrity and faith would have been rejected by relatives, no matter how extended. Not in this culture. In Djibouti people impose on extended relatives all the time, for long periods of time, cramped into small living spaces shared with livestock. No one would turn away a pregnant relative. No, he had family in Bethlehem and he went to the home of relatives where he and Mary rested from their journey and prepared for the birth of the baby.

Some people question why the family would welcome an unwed pregnant woman. The typical image of a Middle Eastern family accepted in the west is that they would stone her. Many Americans are shocked to hear my stories from Djibouti of staunchly Muslim families loving and accepting, through tears, their unwed teenage daughters and the babies. Family and love trump law and fundamentalism more often than not. Some in Nazareth were probably angry, most probably forgave. Some in Bethlehem were probably angry, most probably forgave. Maybe by taking Mary to another town Joseph diffused rising tension among people who had known Mary her whole life. I don’t know.

The word ‘inn’ doesn’t refer to a Holiday Inn or Sheraton style building where a bed and meal can be purchased. It more likely refers to an upper room in a family home. Quite possibly Joseph’s relatives had other distant family in town for the census so the upper room was occupied. This meant the couple had to sleep downstairs in the open living space where animals were kept at night for safety and where they ate from troughs dug into the earth at one end of the room. They maybe slept on mats or piles of blankets, just as they would have upstairs. The room was warm and sheltered, probably filled with other traveling relatives.

Mary didn’t give birth alone. No place in the Bible is this written or implied. More likely she was surrounded by women. A midwife (as is often depicted in Orthodox nativity scenes), Joseph’s relatives, neighbors. Shepherds came and found the child and his mother and left rejoicing because not only had they seen Grace and Mercy in the flesh, but they had seen a woman and child well-cared for and surrounded by wise women. Otherwise, they more likely would have praised God for that Grace and Mercy and then said: What are you doing here alone and cold?! Come with us, our women will care for you! No way would they have left a young mother and infant in that state and left rejoicing.

Maybe in the West the version we are so used to is acceptable because of how we see the world. A poor man failing to plan well for his pregnant fiancee. A pregnant refugee turned away, the needy ignored in the streets as everyone goes about their urgent business. Maybe we feel comfortable imagining that in ‘those’ places people only had dirty torn clothes to wrap around their babies, that in ‘those’ places mothers allow cows to lick their newborns. Maybe this frees us from responsibility to act. If our Lord was born this way, it is not lowly or demeaning for other babies to be born alone, into a cold and unwelcoming world.

But in the culture and time in which Jesus was born, no way. Family, hospitality, food, community, these are highly valued.

We want to make the birth of Jesus as hard as possible, as cold and lonely and desperate and painful as possible. Why? Is it because we can’t grasp the infinite coldness, loneliness, desperation, and pain of what the incarnation truly meant? We wrap it up in dirty clothes and stinking animals, in physical loneliness and fear. Is our feeble attempt at re-imagining the Christmas story our way of trying to understand, to put images and emotions to something so powerfully and deeply beyond our comprehension? To bring the miracle of God-made-flesh into our realm of understanding?

No matter what other pictures we paint to describe his birth nothing can make it harder than it was. Nothing can make it more loving than it was. Nothing can make it more miraculous than it was.

Jesus left heaven and was born a human baby, destined to die a human death.

Saying that Jesus was born into the hands of a skilled midwife or into a house filled with light and laughter and community takes nothing away from the glory of that night. It simply makes it more authentic.

*these thoughts stem from the incredible book: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey and I highly recommend this book. Highly.

*a second resource is Closer to the Real Christmas Story by Jared Burkholder

How has your idea about Christmas or other Bible stories changed by living overseas?

*image via wikipedia

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Dan the Story Man


  • Victoria Gibson

    Well written. Thank you for the insight. It’s amazing how the consumerism in the Western World has hijacked so many holidays and stories and turned them into something they are truly not. People now understand the cost of things but not the value of them.

  • Rachel

    This was awesome! I really enjoyed your points about Joseph especially. Here in my part of Paraguay, bible stories have been so much easier to share. Unlike in London, you don’t have to explain agricultural history, or communal living etc. infact sometimes the people have been able to teach me a thing or two about such elements 🙂

  • Debbie Michelakis-Miller

    I am confused…are you a Christian.? If so do you believe that Allah is the One GOD…Allah is not a name of GOD. Allah is a moon god worship my Muslims.

    • Duncan

      Arab Christians use the word Allah to refer to God.

    • Kelli Delgado

      I don’t usually try to correct ignorant statements on the internet because it rarely does any good. But there was just so much WRONG with this one that I have to make a stab at it. 1. There were never any moon gods. The moon has always been perceived as feminine, and so if you actually knew what you were talking about, you would have said moon goddess. 2. Islam began with the Arabs, who believe they are descended from Ishmael, the firstborn son of Abraham through Hagar. It is indisputable that Muslims believe in the God of Abraham, and thus, the same God as Christians and Jews. 3. Allah is not a *name* for a god, like Zeus, or Thor. It directly translates as the word for “god,” and is used by Arab Christians and Jews (yes, there are Arab Jews).

      • Debbie Michelakis-Miller

        Sorry Kelli you are right. I typed moon GOD but actually should have said sun GOD not moon. The Israelites go by the moon for their calendar. Sometimes all the facts in the brain run together. I am a Christian I was not trying to be mean by any means…that is not my nature and should not be any Christian’s nature. I know all about Abraham, Issac and the offspring. If Millions of Muslims say that the Jews need to be removed from this planet then they are not following the GOD of Abraham. I am not suggesting that you are in agreement with those Muslims by any means. There is much confusion about Muslims because of the various sects. Muslims are told to read the New Testament…a lot of them do not have a NT in their language because they do not own one or they are not being instructed to do so as they should. I am Sorry if I offended you in any way but that was not my intension. I was just confused because of you calling Allah as the same as Adonai. I do not believe they are one in the same… opinion.

        • Marilyn Gardner

          Debbie – there are millions of Arab Christians around the world that refer to God as “Allah” because that is the Arabic word for God. I’m not sure if you have lived/worked in Muslim countries – you may well have – but as someone who has lived and worked in two Muslim countries it is concerning to me that you would focus on the phrase “Insh’allah” – this is a phrase used by Muslims & Christians alike throughout the Arab world. In terms of the debate about “God” — English is only one of the hundreds of languages on this planet that are used to communicate the truth of God’s redemptive plan. Taking Allah out of the vocabulary is grossly limiting God’s creative work. As Kelli says, online spaces are not the best places to express disagreement, but I too feel this is critically important.

        • Debbie Michelakis-Miller

          Marilyn I appreciate the info that you have shared with me. I am greatly concerned with what is happening in the world right now. I am trying to learn about Muslims and their religion. Some are trying to kill the Jews and others would never hurt a fly. If a “Christian” wanted to kill people then they are not truly a Christian. So if a Muslim wants to kill are they truly a Muslim or are the peaceful ones not really a Muslim. The two groups must not be the same. One is worshipping Satan.

      • Debbie Michelakis-Miller

        Also the promise to Ishmael was very different than the promise to Isaac. Isaac is in the lineage of Jesus. Ishmael is not.

    • Debbie Michelakis-Miller

      When u replied Kelli I assumed you were the person that wrote the article, since I posed a question for her.

  • This is refreshing, to hear another viewpoint, and a more culturally appropriate one. I also wrote this week on how my view of Christmas changed during my time overseas. (Though I did use some of the elements that you dispute:)) In any case, my changed view has been encouraging to me. Here is the post:

  • Roch Skelton

    This article fits VERY closely with my beliefs about the birth, and
    its about time that people look at this even through the eyes of THAT
    time and THOSE people… here are a few of MY additions: the “census”
    was NOT on a single special day, it would have been over several months,
    just like it is today, so there is no reason to believe that Bethlehem
    was crowded JUST on the day of the birth… a day/night which was
    certainly NOT in December, probably late spring or early summer,
    for the shepherds to be out all night with their flocks… it is LIKELY
    that the couple left Nazareth midway through the pregnancy, before it
    became a major scandal, and they could have gotten married or at least
    told their Bethlehem relatives that they were married, so there was no
    need for scandal at that end of the trip… sending girls away from home
    to stay with relatives, have the baby and put it up for adoption or get
    married and return home with a kid big for his age, is a common
    response throughout history to pregnancy before the wedding… a stable
    manger, with fresh clean straw and a bed of soft cloth (swaddling
    clothes) is at least as good of a bassinet as those used in many home

    Now, if anyone wants to defend the Wise Men story, I’ll have a lot more negatives to share on that…

  • I think we tend to fill the gaps with our own (very misconstrued) perceptions rather than challenge ourselves to learn what other cultures are like. I remember being so relieved when someone explained to me that it was doubtful Joseph delivered Jesus, but that women would have attended Mary. I was so glad for her!

  • Miriam

    Thanks so much for this post! This will be my second Christmas in my ‘new’ country and it also made me reflect during the past weeks of how we have interpreted some parts of the story from our western point of view. Like you, I started to wonder if Mary was really alone giving birth and where the relatives were, and that it was unlikely that she was in heavy labour when she arrived. And I just realised that in this culture we have one word that is both used for ‘hotel’ and ‘guestroom’ (in their own house) so it could also have meant the latter.
    Just this afternoon I was reading Luke 2 with a local believer. She mentioned some things that I didn’t see in scripture, but then she said: ‘yes, that’s how I saw it happening in the movie…’. I tried to take her back to Scripture, looking at what it says and what it doesn’t say!
    It’s sad to realise that we in the west are responsible for distorting the views and taking Jesus’ birth further away from their culture!

  • Karen

    Wonderful contextualization! As my comment about the Orthodox and early Christian understanding on another thread here today shows, this is much more compatible with Orthodox Christian teaching about these Events that are part of our sacred history. There is much in the early Christian pseudo epigraphical document, The Protoevangelium of James, though it is also classified in the Orthodox tradition as not being on a par with inspired Scripture, that is upheld in Orthodox prayer and liturgy as essentially true in terms of its background detail to the NT nativity narratives. These details include the circumstances surrounding the conception and birth of the Virgin Mary, the names and status of Mary’s parents within the Jewish community, and the presence of midwives at the birth of Christ.

    • Karen

      Apologies for any confusion caused by my reference to another of my comments on “another thread here today”. That comment was actually made over at the “Recovering Grace” web site that picked up your article by way of a link!

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