(First published December 25, 2013)
After the first Christmas, the holiday took awhile to catch on.
No one is sure exactly where Jesus was for his first birthday, the one where adults have a party and laugh at the silly things the child does with cake. It is possible, of course, that the “uncles” from Persia came then. Very distant relatives of Abraham, perhaps. Descendants of the nations who took the Israelites into exile six centuries before this. Now, all these centuries and millennia later, they traveled to honor a king in Israel, not to capture him.
As a result of that visit, Jesus found his way onto Herod’s paranoia-driven radar. Jesus then spent several early birthdays in Egypt. Again, no one knows exactly how many. Like Moses and Joshua, his first memories were more related to the Nile than the Jordan.
By the time Jesus celebrated a birthday in his family’s hometown, he didn’t know any of the other kids born around the same time he was. He would have been out of sync with his peers. They may have never seen anything outside of Nazareth. He had been a refugee.
When the family got back to Nazareth, they celebrated Hanukkah rather than Christmas. And Passover. And Succoth. In fact, the holidays that Jesus grew up celebrating looked more like the ones Nehemiah celebrated than the ones I grew up celebrating. Sabbath, New Moon festivals, weddings, the annual feasts. He grew up rooted in a small town
at the edges of the culture.
When he was twelve, he took his first trip to Jerusalem. His second, actually, but he was an infant the first time. From small town to national capital, little synagogue to Herod’s Temple. It was an affirmation that his birthday mattered. Not because of Christmas, but because the religious leaders began to know that this young man had a religious future.
Little did they know.