12 December 2018, The Tablet

‘Be not afraid.’ Richard Leonard on the greeting we all need to hear this Christmas

‘Be not afraid.’ Richard Leonard on the greeting we all need to hear this Christmas

At the risk of wrecking your Christmas, we have to clear up a few things.

I know all our carols and cards say that Jesus was born in December; in a snow-covered stable; was wrapped in swaddling clothes; lay in the manger with the animals around him; that a star stood vigil; and was later visited by three Kings whose names were Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior.

But the Gospels don’t say any of this. It could have snowed on the first Christmas, but the Scriptures don’t say that it did. No animals are mentioned. The star in the North did not stand still in the night sky because stars just don’t behave like that. And Jesus probably wasn’t even born in December.

Pope Julius I declared that Christmas was to be celebrated on 25 December in 350 AD, after the Christians had given the pagan Roman calendar the thorough make-over it richly deserved. Rather neatly, the pagan feast of the “birthday of the unconquered Sun” became the “birthday of the all-conquering Son” – the birthday of Jesus our Lord.

The worst Christmas I ever celebrated was in Manger Square in Bethlehem. By the time I had finally negotiated the traffic jams, the security checks, and the guards on patrol and joined the thousands who had been packed into the church, the adventure had lost some of its appeal.

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