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updated: 12/22/2012 7:24 PM

Annual holiday message has a few new twists

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  • The Rev. William Beckmann of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Batavia shared his annual holiday message to the Tri-Cities Exchange Club last week.

    The Rev. William Beckmann of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Batavia shared his annual holiday message to the Tri-Cities Exchange Club last week.
    Courtesy of Tri-Cities Exchange Club


Maybe the stores that begin decorating for Christmas in early September know something the rest of us don't.

After all, it's quite possible -- and even very likely -- that Jesus was born on Sept. 29, around 5 or 6 B.C.

That's the best guess that the Rev. William Beckmann of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Batavia can make about Christ's birth date, based on research by Christmas historians in the past and what we know about the Christmas story.

Beckmann shared the history of Christmas "calendars, characters and the courts" in his annual holiday message to the Tri-Cities Exchange Club last week.

Beckmann estimates he has been delivering presentations about Christmas legend and lore for the past 30 years, mostly because "I am a sucker for Christmas books, and it's a fascinating holiday to study."

I've been fortunate to share the message each of the past eight years with readers, and here's the new and interesting things Beckmann shared in his 2012 presentation:

Researching the birth

Historians can look at several factors when trying to determine when the baby Jesus was actually born. It likely was not in late December, since both Luke and Matthew, in their versions of the Christmas story, mention shepherds were at work in their fields when an angel informed them of the birth.

"That means it had to be in the spring or at lambing time when lambs were newborns, because that would be the time shepherds would stay in the fields," Beckmann said. "It is too cold to be in the fields in late December."

In addition, using facts such as the reign of King Herod and the years in which Romans conducted a census for the purpose of levying taxes, it is reasonable to estimate that Jesus was born around 5 or 6 B.C. In the early days of Christianity, May 20 was the church's choice for celebrating the birth of Christ, Beckmann said. But that was after two centuries of not celebrating the birth at all, because the Easter celebration was more important, he added.

"The date of a birth was not as important to record, because so many infants died during child birth," Beckmann said. "The date of death was the key date that was recorded."

By the middle of the 4th century, Pope Julius I established Dec. 25 as the date of birth, partly because it would make it easy for those Romans who were still pagans to complete their rituals at that time of year and transition into Christianity, Beckmann noted.

We took our time

It took a long time for Christmas celebrations to take hold in this country, considering the Puritans of the 17th century banned Christmas celebrations. That prohibition spread to North America, where a Massachusetts court levied a fine of five shillings on anyone who celebrated, Beckmann said.

The Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620 passed a law banning both Christmas and Easter celebrations.

It wasn't until Charles II gained power in England that the ban on Christmas was lifted, and the customs made their way to America. Finally, in 1856, Massachusetts declared Christmas legal, Beckmann said.

Joseph had his say

Of all of the characters in the Christmas story, Joseph is one with no record of speaking in any version of the story.

As such, one can only speculate about what he really thought about Mary bearing a child through "a virgin birth," Beckmann said.

"I am sure Joseph probably had something to say," he added.

No drummer boy

Regardless of the popular Christmas carol, there is no record of a drummer boy accompanying the shepherds to the manger to see the newborn Jesus, Beckmann said.

In fact, some may question whether shepherds even came into Bethlehem to see the child, because they were generally viewed as outcasts who rarely came into the cities, Beckmann added.

By the way, for those curious about such matters, Beckmann said there are "21 rum-pum-pums in the song."

No manger?

The modern vision of the manger being an outdoor stable also appears unlikely; a manger was commonly considered part of a house in those days, Beckmann said.

Quite likely, with Bethlehem being very crowded because of the census taking place, Mary and Joseph found shelter in one of many caves carved out of the hillsides, he added.

Helene, the mother of Constantine, had the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem erected over the probable cave site, Beckmann said.

Chicago politics at work?

Considering his arrogance and the political connections he used to reach power, King Herod could be an ancient example of Chicago politics, Beckmann said.

"He used his political connections to get into power," he added. "His father, Antipater, had supported Caesar and Cassius in Rome. Antipater appointed his son Herod as ruler of Galilee."

Asking for directions

When the Magi came to Jerusalem, there were likely only two, not three. Plus they were not kings, thus being labeled as "wise men" in Matthew's story, Beckmann said. Most likely, they were astrologers or religious sages.

However, it is true they stopped in Jerusalem to ask for directions to Bethlehem to visit the newborn king. As such, they may have been the first men in recorded history to actually ask for directions when they were lost, Beckmann said.

Macy's did it first

Think it is crazy for stores to be open until midnight prior to Christmas? Macy's can be credited with starting such a craze, staying open until midnight prior to Christmas in 1867.

"So keeping a store open late during the holidays is not new," Beckmann said. "In fact, Macy's invented the term last-minute shopping."

Happy holidays!: To all of my readers and everyone else who calls the Tri-Cities and greater Fox Valley-area their home, have a safe and happy holiday.

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