In many circles, editorials and sermons on the true meaning of Christmas have become a routine, perhaps almost obligatory, protest against the materialism and rush of the season. Christmas, of course, has taken on various expressions in a range of cultures through history along the way picking up fir trees, wrapped gifts, and developing permutations of figures such as St. Nicholas of Myra (a fourth-century bishop).
Most customs we associate with Christmas did not exist in the first century, but two books that are now in the New Testament describe the circumstances surrounding Jesus’s birth. The circumstances in the first, Matthew’s Gospel, portend Jesus’s future conflicts with hostile members of the elite. Although welcomed by outsiders, Joseph, Mary and Jesus have to flee from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape the wrath of the jealous tyrant Herod the Great. My wife, who was a refugee, readily identifies with their plight as refugees (although gifts from the Magi and the large Jewish community in Alexandria should have provided Jesus’s family a measure of comfort).
Back in Bethlehem, however, Matthew’s scene immediately develops into one of terror. Herod, king of Judea, massacres the male infants remaining in Bethlehem. Three times the narrative lists the objects that have threatened the mad king’s rage: “the baby and his mother”. Whatever Matthew’s sources for this account, his portrayal fits the recorded character of a king who murdered three of his sons, his favorite wife, and anyone he saw as a potential threat to his throne. His young brother-in-law, for example, a high priest who was becoming too popular, had a drowning “accident” in a pool that archaeologists suggest was only three feet deep.