Everything you know about the Christmas story is a lie.
Okay, maybe not everything. It definitely is the day we celebrate Jesus’ birthday (although he probably wasn’t born in December). And there were shepherds and angels involved. But beyond the most basic outlines of the story, most of what you picture when I say the words, “First Christmas” simply aren’t there in the actual gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke.
Picture the scenes from the Christmas story in your mind, and it probably looks something like this: Mary, great with child, riding on a donkey led by Joseph as he goes from house to house knocking on doors and being turned away. Eventually an innkeeper takes pity on them and, even though his inn is full, he lets them use the stable out back. The baby is born there, and placed in a wooden feeding trough, surrounded by gentle farm animals. Shepherds arrive, given directions by an angel choir, followed by three royal visitors bearing fancy presents. Overhead, a dazzlingly bright star casts a peaceful heavenly glow over the warm stable. The whole thing looks so peaceful, so cozy, that it makes you want to burst out singing “Silent Night.”
Except none of it is true. Look more carefully at the story itself in Matthew and Luke and you’ll find no mention of a donkey, or an innkeeper, or even a stable. The shepherds probably didn’t look or act like what you’re picturing. The star and the wise men aren’t what you think they are, either.
You see, here’s the problem: our notions of what the first Christmas looked like have become so sentimentalized, so sanitized, that they look more like something out of a Hallmark card than the actual biblical account. I don’t think anybody set out to intentionally “clean up” the Christmas story. But over the years and generations of carols and traditions and Christmas pageants, we’ve added so many layers of ritual and assumption and nostalgia that we’ve covered over the truth of the story. We’ve made the Nativity fit so nicely into our domesticated, commercialized family celebrations—little porcelain baby Jesus on the mantle right next to the Advent candles, garland, and stockings—that we’re in danger of missing the whole point of the story.
And therein lies the bigger problem. There’s nothing wrong with cozy little Nativity scenes. But if we lose the true story of Christmas in a sea of sentimental wrapping paper, we’ll lose something more than an interesting story. We’ll end up missing the significance of what God has done, the weighty and sober truths of what Christmas really means, and how it all ties together into the larger story of the gospel. If all we know of the first Christmas is the warm fuzzy feelings that carols give us, then we’re missing the life-changing reality of a God who invades brokenness and pain to rewrite the narrative of our suffering.
So here’s what I want to do with this little book: First, I want to ruin your Christmas. I want to spoil all the carols and Nativity scenes and Christmas pageants so that you’ll never look at them the same way again. But I’m not doing this because I’m a Grinch. Because in the place of what I tear down, I want to show you how every element of the true story of Christmas is better, more significant and meaningful and life-transforming, than you ever knew this holiday could possibly be. The clichés of “peace on earth” and “joy to the world” are far deeper, far richer, far more glorious than you’ve ever dreamed.
By the time we’re finished, you’ll never be able to look at a nativity scene again and you’ll wince at half of the cheesy Christmas carols everyone sings, but my prayer is that the true wonder of the incarnation will be so much more precious to you. So grab a hammer, and let’s start smashing all your Christmas decorations. You’ll thank me when we’re done.