The First Christmas Family Argument?


The First Christmas Family Argument?

Christmas! The time when families and friends celebrate together, have fun and enjoy good food. But it’s not always the case. In practice, Christmas can be the source of angry rows or stony silences, the breaking point for marriages, and the catalyst for children deciding to leave home. Nostalgia always wins out when we think of ‘Christmas’, even our thoughts about the very first one. But Jesus’s birth was likely to have been the occasion of a terrible argument and a family breakup. When we lay the baby in the manger at our nativity services, we commemorate the outcome of this argument. 

Imagine the scene in that small town of Bethlehem which then consisted of just a few dozen houses. Everyone is gossiping about the couple who have just arrived. The woman is about to give birth and they can’t find a room. News spread fast when everyone spoke to their neighbours instead of watching Neighbours on TV. But as we read the account in our Bibles, something doesn’t add up.

When holidaymakers on Mediterranean beaches saw families struggling ashore from their stricken boats, they didn’t continue chillaxing on their sunbeds. News reports showed tourists running into the sea to get them to safety.[1] Occasionally a pregnant woman was among the refugees and people quickly tried to help her. It’s a natural human instinct. Even those who complain about immigrants are likely to respond humanely to an actual person in need.

Something is clearly missing in the Christmas story – at least, the version we tell. It’s understandable, because so many details aren’t spelled out in the text. They were so obvious to a first-century Jew that the Gospel writers didn’t need to record them.

Mary and Joseph weren’t turned away from an inn because no inn, or inn-keeper, are mentioned in the Bible. It would be strange if they were, because Bethlehem was far too small to warrant an inn. The word kataluma at Luke 2.7 has been translated as ‘inn’ because that’s how it was understood in the Latin Bible that dominated the church until a few centuries ago. The correct translation is “a guest room”. So Mary and Joseph were turned away from a home. But who would do this?

Giving hospitality to strangers was expected – in fact, it was considered immoral to refuse (Heb.13.2). Every Jew with sufficient means kept a kataluma, including poorer families who shared resources by building around a common courtyard. Even for extremely poor families without such a room, custom dictated you gave up your own room rather than let a guest suffer.

So what went wrong at Bethlehem? We usually assume the census caused overcrowding, but the text says nothing about overcrowding. And the census wouldn’t have created an unmanageable crowd anyway. The Romans weren’t interested in Jewish genealogies (unlike the gospel writers); people had to register at their home town or village because the Romans wanted to find out where to send tax demands. Anyone returning to Bethlehem therefore either lived there or had their parental home there.

If there’s no overcrowding, and with the inn-keeper removed from the nativity play cast-list, who was to blame for Mary and Joseph’s treatment? In a society that regarded inhospitality almost as a crime, why didn’t at least someone allow poor Mary their guest room, or even offer her their own room? Wouldn’t you?

Only one family in Bethlehem with a strong enough motive for such an uncaring and cruel attitude can account for this: Joseph’s parents. They almost certainly lived there to explain Joseph having to register there. And even if they’d heard the news that his fiancée was already pregnant, they wouldn’t have expected him to bring shame on them by bringing her to their home.

In first-century Jewish society the number of pregnant brides would be close to zero. The terrible disgrace of an illegitimate pregnancy is, in itself, sufficient to explain the banishment of ‘the holy family’ to a place among the livestock. 

Perhaps Mary and Joseph were allowed to use the animal shed so the neighbours wouldn’t see they’d been thrown out. After all, lack of hospitality was also shameful, so not permitting them inside the decent family home but giving them at least some form of shelter might have been seen as a respectable compromise.

As far as neighbours and friends were concerned, letting Mary into their home would create a rift with her in-laws and be subject to disapproval by practically everybody else. So they closed their window shutters and did nothing.

The story ends with the kindness of strangers. Shepherds were looked down on by almost everyone. Dirty and smelly, they were also illiterate and the least employable. Worst of all, they were irreligious – they even worked on the Sabbath. We know they were poor and would eat just about anything from the way the rabbis defined the difference between food that had to be tithed and rotten food that didn’t: “If a shepherd is still willing to eat it, then it is still legally ‘food’”![2]

We don’t know why these shepherds were privileged to hear the angelic celebration – perhaps they just happened to be around. But I like to think they were specially chosen as the ones who’d best understand the rejection Mary and Joseph were suffering. And they were practical. They’d come not just with concerned platitudes and verbal encouragement, but food, drink, and if possible, warm blankets. Other visitors would only have made Mary and Joseph anxious and ashamed, but for a short while they’d feel accepted in the shepherds’ company. 

Who among us today lives on that lowest rung occupied by the shepherds? The Christmas story is one of wonder and joy, but it also teaches us about hospitality and rejection.

And it’s left me wondering who I should invite to eat turkey with me this Christmas.