Quirinius, who is mentioned in Luke's text, is well known to historians. They agree that he took a census; but say that he left no record of which year, or of what time of year it was taken.
The year and time of Christ's birth have been debated since early in the 3rd century. One suggested date, May 2Oth. (Clement of Alexandria) would make the carol ‘ln the deep midwinter' a bit out of place.
The agreed most likely time, is early April: but does the actual date really matter? Christmas is not so much the anniversary of an historical event; but more the daily, joyful celebration of ‘God with us' in the lives of believers.
No record of the celebration of Christmas exists, until the late 4th. century. December 25th, as a special day, is first mentioned in a Roman calendar relating to AD 336.
It marked an established pagan feast (Natalis Solis lnvicti) celebrating the 'rebirth' of the sun, which was supposed to have 'died' at the winter solstice (December 21st.) and to be showing signs of growing power, as the days begin to move through the winter, with spring in view.
The ‘Western Church', based on Rome, deliberately placed Christmas on top of the December 25th pagan festivals, in the hope that Christian worship would triumph over, and do away with, the existing pagan worship.
The ‘Eastern Church’, based on Constantinople (modern Istanbul) did not accept December 25th, and celebrate Christ's birth on that day, until the middle of the fifth century. However, the Armenian Church, part of what we call 'Eastern Orthodox', observes Christmas on January 6th.
It can be said that our modern, secular celebration of Christmas: is largely due to the ideas, and the writings of Prince Albert, and Charles Dickens. Before their day, three famous, English diarists, between them, mentioned Christmas just once.
John Evelyn (1620-1706) kept a diary for 68 years, and wrote of Christmas that once (1653) when he complained that he could not find a church, in London, that was open for worship on Christmas Day.
Samuel Pepys (1660-1669) kept a diary for 10 years, and John Wesley (1703-1791) kept his for almost 55 years: yet neither make any mention of Christmas.
To a large extent, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens re-introduced pagan symbols into Christian celebrations; which then quite considerably covered over the true meaning of Christmas.
The use of Christmas trees; holly, mistletoe and other greenery; and candles, tinsel, and other things which give, or reflect, light, pre-dates Christianity by many centuries; and belong to the pagan festival of the winter solstice...
...where, in the midst of the ‘darkness and death' of winter, ‘light’ points to the rebirth of the sun; and ‘greenery’ points to the prolific life anticipated in spring and summer, and the resultant harvests.
'Father Christmas', or ‘Santa Claus' is an almost entirely mythical figure. The only historical reference to St. Nicholas, is a church dedicated to him; built at the command of the Roman Emperor, Justinian, who died in A.D.565.
The 'Feast of St. Nicholas' is celebrated, simply because each ‘Saint' needed his or her day: and December 6th happened to offer a vacant slot on the rapidly filling Church Calendar.
With nothing at all known about St. Nicholas: many stories have been created to fill the gap. Dutch Protestant settlers, in 17th century America (New Amsterdam) introduced the custom of making gifts in his name.
‘Santa Claus' is a mispronunciation of ‘Sinter Klaus'; Dutch for St. Nicholas; which entered our language, as the Dutch-American custom of giving presents spread to Britain and Europe.
The Bible doesn't mention ‘Three Kings'. There were three types of gift, but there might have been several givers. Calling them ‘Kings', first appeared in Christian tradition late in the Second Century A.D. (Tertullian, North African convert, c.168-c. 225) In the 6th century, they were given names: Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar.
Mince pies and Christmas puddings have rich ingredients, which are supposed to symbolize the richness of God's love and providence. Mince pies used to be made oval-shaped, to represent a cradle.
Folk-traditions and Christmas carols, make statements, and use images, not found in the Bible.
The concept of Christ being born in a stable, or cattle-shed, comes from the words 'manger' and 'no room at the inn' (Luke 2:7) but the Gospel makes no mention of cattle or donkeys, or any other animals, at the place of birth.
Matthew 2:11 states that, when the 'Wise Men' appeared, Joseph and Mary had already found a house to stay at; although our carols insist that Christ still lay in a manger, when they presented their gifts to him.
Christmas cards depicting snow-covered churches; robins; coaches and horses; carol-singers with lanterns, and all the rest, may be a bit of fun; but, along with all the many other non-biblical images; they help clutter the mind, and prevent us from clearly seeing the basic truths of Christmas.
Just as a seaside breakwater, can get so covered with barnacles; mussels and seaweed, that the wood is almost lost to view; so Christmas is so covered over with pagan symbolism, that its Christian meaning is almost hidden from a world that needs the Redeeming Christ now, as much as ever.
If we strip away the tinsel and all the rest; and let the gospels speak to us; we discover that the ‘Light of Truth' is far brighter than all the candles ever made, and reveals a truly wonderful event.
We find that God; who once stood at the edge of the 'stage of life', directing the action from the 'wings'; and using a 'script' based on the Law, Commandments and judgement...
...put the script to one side; moved to centre-stage, and became fully involved in the action; himself taking the key role; and offering mercy , grace and redeeming love, in Christ, in a personal, and attractive manner.
To prove that he was not, at the time, merely acting a part, which, in turn, he might put to one side; the Lord fixed the event firmly in history, and made it unchangeable for all eternity.
To prove also the intensity of his love and compassion for needy mankind; God rooted the event in the muck and mire of sin, in which humanity was trapped; from which there was no escape, unless the Lord made it so.
God, who is the ‘Ultimate Realist', knew that he could not get alongside people, without actually being alongside them. In Christ, he entered deeply, meaningfully, eternally, into the human situation.
In one carol we sing ‘Love came down at Christmas’. God allowed nothing to stand in the way of his love’s expression: deliberately entering a situation where rejection, and so much else that cut against his nature, awaited him.
Another carol says that he did this gladly, ‘Pleased as man with man to dwell': for the giving of the redeeming Christ, was the one, true hope for the world; and the ‘escape' from sin, and spiritual death, that only the Lord himself could provide.
The gladness of heaven: is reflected in the gladness of the needy world, as it sings: ‘Hark! the glad sound! the Saviour comes; the Saviour promised long’
Through Christ the Saviour, we are no longer separated by the 'Fall of Mankind', and can sing 'God and sinners reconciled'...raised up once more, by mercy, love and grace; and joined with God in ongoing relationship.
The hymn 'There's a spirit in the air', ends with these words: 'Praise the love that Christ revealed; living, working, in our world'.
But, as the carol ‘Oh come all ye faithful' reminds us, the revelation of Christ in the world, must not be viewed and admired from afar; for a challenge is contained in the words "come and behold him'.
To ‘behold’ is not only to see, but to take hold of: receive, and experience.
We sing: ‘And to those who never listened, to the message of thy birth; who have winter, but no Christmas; bringing them thy peace on earth; Send to these the joyful tidings...'.
...but God, tends to give prayer-answers to people, through people, trusting us to respond, as did the prophet of old, and say: 'Here am I, Lord; send me’. The carol ‘O little town of Bethlehem', reminds us that: ‘Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Lord enters in'.
A joyful Christmas, does not belong to earth alone, but to heaven as well; which rejoices every time that a needy soul accepts Christ, and enters into his redeeming love, and the process of salvation…
…and Christ calls each church, now, to help complete what he began to do, in the long-ago.     Amen.