As Catholics, we have the fullness of Truth in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. However, not every custom and legend is part of Scared Tradition. Some are details and stories that developed decades and even centuries after they supposedly happened. These pious legends were meant to stir deeper devotion or to convey true mysteries of the faith. While Sacred Tradition is truths that are part of the Deposit of Faith, pious legends are not. There are many details about the Birth of Jesus that are not found in the Gospels some simply fill in gaps in the sparse accounts while others though well-intentioned, are fabrications. Sorting through biblical facts and pious legends can help us rediscover what is truly important about the Nativity.
1. Mary rode a donkey
No where in the Gospels, not even Luke’s, does it mention that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem by donkey. Matthew doesn’t even mention the census in his Gospel. Although we would like to think Mary had at least the rustic comfort of a pack animal to sit on, it’s very possible she walked the whole way. It’s possible, even probable, but it doesn’t say it in the Bible.
2. Joseph didn’t believe Mary
Though the Bible tells us St. Joseph planned to divorce Mary, some scholars believe this wasn’t due to a lack of faith. He may have earnestly believed Mary about the angel’s message but thought himself unworthy to be the foster father of the Word Incarnate. To be fair, wouldn’t you? We don’t know—it’s inconclusive.
3. Joseph was old
There is a tradition that St. Joseph was advanced in age when he was betrothed to the Blessed Virgin Mary. While you may see many statues of the Holy Family that show St. Joseph with gray hair hunched over a walking staff, this is not a indisputable fact. This imagery comes from the narrative in the Protoevangelium of James, but it not found in the Bible.
4. They knocked on every inn door
The Gospel of Luke simply says there was no room in the inn, implying there was actually only one inn in Bethlehem. Today we’re used to five hotels within walking distance of each other, but this wasn’t necessarily the case in a small town in first century Palestine. The image of the couple frantically knocking on every door does bring to light Mary and Joseph’s difficult circumstances. However, the Holy Family was likely accepting of their humble accommodations when the only inn in town was full.
5. The shepherds brought their lambs
The imagery of shepherds and lambs is deeply tied to Christ. In all likelihood, if the shepherds at Bethlehem were good shepherds, they wouldn’t leave a young lamb to fend by itself. So, although it makes sense that we see lambs carried on shepherd’s shoulders in our nativity displays this technically isn’t stated in the biblical account. It’s possible the shepherds brought their entire flocks or that they left everything to go and see the newborn Messiah.
6. The magi were Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar
It’s likely the magi did have names but no where in the Bible does it tell them to us. The tradition of tall Melchior, shorter Caspar, and dark Balthazar developed later. It has become such a fixed part of the customs around Epiphany that the three are even named as saints.
7. There were three wise men
I remember when I first heard that the number of magi is not stated in the Gospels. My twelve-year-old heart was crushed. While three gifts are named its unclear whether there were two or five or three magi. The number, ultimately, is not important. What Matthew shows us is three gifts, and in the magi is Christ’s mission as savior of all humanity, Jew and Gentile.
In the end, these pious legends and ancient customs can help round out our understanding of the Nativity. But setting them aside and focusing on the biblical texts helps us to remember what is essential in the birth of Christ. In Christmas, the wonder of the Incarnation is found in God’s unfathomable love in taking on flesh and coming into the world as a helpless baby.