Pope Benedict XVI has decided to “de-bunk Christmas myths” according to CNN, the UK Telegraph and other news outlets. The Pontiff has a new book out about Christ’s early life called Jesus of Nazareth – The Infancy Narratives in which he says that popular figures of Christmas lore, such as the three Wise Men, singing angels and barnyard animals, were not present at Jesus’ birth.
Before I get to the de-bunking part, let’s give the Pope some props on the title: Jesus of Nazareth – The Infancy Narratives. If I didn’t know who wrote this book, I’d think it was the next installment of the Bourne Legacy series, soon to be a major motion picture starring Matt Damon as Jesus and Eddie Murphy as the donkey, his best friend since birth. This book is going to sell just based on the name.
Anyway, Pope Benedict writes that “there is no mention of animals in the Gospels.” But despite the controversy this has prompted, the Pope is not calling for the elimination of this tradition. “No representation of the crib is complete without the ox and the ass,” he says, and in fact the Vatican Nativity will continue to include barnyard animals. The Pope is just saying that it may have originated with pre-Christian traditions.
Here’s where (if I may say it) the Pope has it wrong. I’d bet a white elephant gift that the barnyard animals were introduced in the very first Christmas play, when the teachers realized that if only Jesus, Mary and Joseph appeared in the production, 27 other kids would have nothing to do.
The Pope also says the angels spoke, not sang, the news of Christ’s birth to the shepherds, based on the language used in the Bible (and, of course, based on Linus’ speech in A Charlie Brown Christmas). And the Pope agrees with the idea that Jesus was not born in the year 0, since King Herod, the arch-nemesis in the story, died in 4 BC. The Pope posits that this misperception is the result of bad math by the monk Dionysius Exiguous. Thank God Brother Exiguous wasn’t in charge of the Mayan calendar – am I right?
Finally, the Pope ventured that the three Wise Men may be the result of a “theological idea” instead of a “historical event.” But, seriously, have there ever really been three wise men?
Of course, the media jumped all over this story, as we reported on Constant Crisis News & Opinion, the weekly humor podcast I co-host. But the media are misguided.
Look, I love Christmas lights. When my parents emigrated here to Richmond, Virginia with their children from Brooklyn in 1965, we brought with us the northern tradition of stringing multi-colored light bulbs the size of small Douglas firs across the front of the house, and at that time we were the first on the block to do so. I’m a Christmas lights pioneer! The only reason I don’t put up elaborate decorations now is that I am lazy.
But do you think there was an inflatable Snoopy at the birth of Christ? Abominable snowmen? FM radio frequencies that broadcast in time with blinking lights?
Of course not! There also weren’t Christmas trees, mistletoe or You-Know-Who coming down the you-know-what. And there weren’t (at least, according to the official transcripts) donkeys, sheep, camels or singing angels. These traditions came along later, and they are wonderful, celebratory traditions. I’ll probably do 5-10 unofficial tacky lights tours myself this season! And who knows? In 100 years, tradition may hold that some of those barnyard animals were inflatable.
The key is not confusing tradition and belief. The transcripts (and Linus) say, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
It’s about Christ, not donkeys.
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