Common Misconceptions About the Nativity

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst

“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst

I have been open on this blog before about my Christian faith, and this is one of the most important times of year for me as we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior. However, many aspects of the story we tell about the first Christmas are actually based not on the Bible but on popular culture, so I thought it would be fun to make a quick Christmas special blog sharing a few less well known facts about that most Holy of nights that even most Christians don’t know.

Myth: Jesus was born on December 25, 1 A.D.

The Truth: The Bible doesn’t actually tell us when Jesus was born.

The early Christian church had a habit of selecting dates for important Christian holidays so that they fell on or near Roman pagan festivals, in order to make things a little easier and more comfortable for converts to the faith. Christmas was timed to coincide with Saturnalia, the traditional Roman winter solstice celebration. Many common Christmas traditions from the hanging of wreaths to the use of mistletoe are originally pagan, not Christian, traditions.

As for the year Jesus was born, it is understandable that people think he was born in 1 A.D. After all, A.D. stands for Anno Domini (Latin for “In the Year of the Lord”) and B.C. stands for “Before Christ”. Indeed, when Dionysius Exiguus devised this system in 525 A.D., it was his intention to have 1 A.D. mark the year Jesus was born. But he miscalculated. Almost all scholars today agree that Jesus had to have been born between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C., since King Herod was an important part of the Biblical story and he was simply not alive anymore in 1 A.D.

Myth: The three wise men came on the night Jesus was born

The Truth: Actually, the Bible implies the “newborn King” might have already been two years old when they showed up with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The story is told in Matthew 2:1-18. It says an unspecified number of men referred to as “Magi” (members of the Persian priesthood, who were noted at the time as the world’s best astrologers) came looking for Jesus after seeing a new star in the sky, following it to Bethlehem. We assume there were three of them, since they brought three gifts, but that’s just a guess. In any case, the Bible says they arrived at Mary and Joseph’s house. Not a manger, where Jesus was born, but a house. I think it’s safe to assume there has been some time between His birth and their arrival.

Another clue to Jesus’s age when these visitors arrived is the actions King Herod took when he found out about all this. The Bible tells how he killed all boys in Bethlehem who were two years old and under; Joseph and Mary managed to escape with the young Jesus because they had been warned in a dream. Why two years old? Perhaps at this time Jesus was already two years old, or perhaps Herod was just being thorough.

In any case, I think the reason for the misconception is our Nativity scenes, which traditionally show three wise men in the manger with the shepherds, in order to make sure they are included in the story, even though their story is actually a different one that occurred some time later.

Myth: Jesus Christ was the name given to the newborn Lord at His birth by Mary and Joseph

The Truth: The name “Jesus Christ” was given to Him later by the Christian faithful.

“Christ” is an honorific religious title, not His last name. Jews in New Testament times generally didn’t have last names. “Christ” comes from the Greek “Christos”, the closest translation the writers of the New Testament could come up with for the fundamentally Hebrew concept of the Messiah – the anointed savior of the children of Israel prophesied in the Jewish Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament. Christians believe Jesus is the Messiah, and so took to calling him Jesus Christ as a way of quickly asserting their faith in Him.

As for His name, when He was alive it would actually have been Yeshua, a Hebrew variant of Joshua. Of course, as I mentioned before, the New Testament was written in Greek, and Greek simply doesn’t have the alphabet to accurately translate that name, so they rendered it as closely as they could: Iesous. We have evidence from other, non-Christian writings of the time that men named “Yeshua” would often have their names translated as “Iesous” in Greek. In any case, the Greek “Iesous” became the Latin “Iesus”, which became our English “Jesus”.

I hope you enjoyed this short little Cat Flag special. However you celebrate the holiday, I hope you have a wonderful one.


What Happens to a Palace after the Monarchy is Over?

Schwerin Palace image by Harald Hoyer

Today, there are 43 countries around the world that are monarchies. However, monarchies used to be far more common than they currently are. In fact, for most of human history, monarchy was by far the most common form of government worldwide. Across continents and cultures, even in lands that had no contact with each other, human societies spontaneously and independently developed the concept of monarchy. Chiefs and kings of tribes or city-states are among history’s first recorded rulers. I guess “I’m in charge because the gods say so and my son will take over when I die” is just an obvious idea.

Recently, while watching some specials on PBS about European palaces, I began to wonder, what happens to a royal palace when the monarchy is overthrown? After all, the palace is not just the monarch’s home, it is also the symbol of the monarch’s power. These massive buildings were built explicitly to showcase just how powerful the reigning king, emperor, or sultan is, their design intended to intimidate through massive size and opulence. Once there are no more monarchs, something has to be done with these buildings.

So, I looked into the post-monarchy histories of many royal palaces around the world, and found a few common trends.

Left to become Ruins

Diocletian's Palace sketch by Robert Adam

Obviously, most ancient palaces would have been long since abandoned and left to become ancient ruins. For example, the 18th-century sketch by Robert Adam above shows the palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian, abandoned and forgotten for centuries until Adam published his description of it and in so doing helped inspire the rise of neoclassical architecture. Today, it is remarkably well-preserved, in comparison to other Roman palaces in Rome itself, such as the House of Augustus and Domus Augustana.

This is all that is left of Iran’s Apadana, once home to Darius the Great and Xerxes I:

Apadana image by Marmoulak

Then there’s China’s Weiyang Palace, which is now just a large, empty field.

A palace need not be ancient to fall in to ruin, however. In Afghanistan, the Darul-Aman Palace, built in the 1920s, is just a burnt-out shell.

Darul-Aman Palace image by Carl Montgomery

However, not all ruined palaces have such a depressing fate. The Imperial City of Hue, destroyed during the Vietnam War, is currently being rebuilt and restored to its former glory.

Used by the new government

Palais Royal in Paris image by Marie-Lan Nguyen

Presidents, prime ministers, parliaments, and government agencies need places to work, and former royal palaces make perfectly good buildings. Why not put them to use?

When the modern French republic was set up, the new government found that there were many, many palaces built by the nation’s former monarchs and royals dotting the place. Some of these buildings were re-purposed as government offices. The Palais-Royal, pictured above, now houses the Council of State, Constitutional Council, Ministry of Culture, and French National Library. The Palais Bourbon is now used by the National Assembly, the Palais du Luxembourg by the Senate, and the Palais de l’Élysée by the President and Council of Ministers.

Italy did the same thing with a few of its palaces in Rome – the Palazzo Quirinale is used by the President of Italy, while the two houses of the Italian Parliament use the Palazzo Madama and Palazzo Montecitorio. Another palace, the Palazzo Farnese, now houses the French embassy in Italy.

Of course, the most famous re-purposed royal palace would have to be the Kremlin of Moscow:

Kremlin image by Pavel Kazachkov

Once one of the homes of the tsars, the Kremlin was chosen by Lenin after the Bolshevik Revolution as the new headquarters of the Soviet Union. Today, it is the official residence of the President of Russia.

Turned into a museum

Forbidden City image by Jim G

Perhaps the most famous palace in the world is China’s Forbidden City, used by China’s emperors from 1420 to 1912. The massive complex of 980 buildings with a total of 8,886 rooms has been a public museum since 1925 and currently receives more than 14 million visitors every year, making it the world’s most visited museum.

You can also visit the Chateau de Versailles, France’s largest and most famous royal palace, for about 15 euros.

Many nations feel creating a museum out of their ex-royal palaces is a great way to preserve their past and share it with future generations. In Turkey, the former Ottoman palaces of Topkapi, Yildiz, and Dolmabahçe can be toured by curious visitors, as can the Korniakt Palace in Lviv, Ukraine or the ‘Iolani Palace in Honolulu, Hawaii. Germany and Italy were once divided into a multitude of small kingdoms, duchies, and principalities, and thus they are now dotted with hundreds of palaces, and many have become tourist attractions.

It makes sense to turn a palace into a museum, what with all the amazing works of art and historical artifacts that would be in a royal collection. Speaking of which…

Turned into an art or history museum

Mexico’s Chapultepec Castle was once home of Maximilian I, who was Mexico’s emperor from 1864 to 1867. Today, it is the home of Mexico’s National Museum of History.

In Brazil, another Latin American country briefly ruled by an emperor, one of the former imperial palaces is now a science and history museum and the other is used as an art gallery. Vienna’s Belvedere Palace is also now host to Austria’s largest art museum, with exhibits on everything from medieval to modern art.

Indeed, the world-famous Louvre Museum, home of the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and that strange glass pyramid thing at the entrance…

Seriously, what is that thing doing there?

Seriously, what is that thing doing there?

…was originally one of France’s royal palaces, home of the kings of France from 1546 to 1682.

Turned into a… hotel?

Remember how I said that Italy had many, many palaces? Well, not all of them ended up as museums or government offices. Some ended up as luxury hotels. You can stay at the Gritti Palace in Venice, built as the home of the Doge of Venice in the 15th century, starting at the low, low price of 430 euros a night. That’s just one of a number of former Italian palaces that have been converted into hotels or bed and breakfasts.

It’s not just Italy, either. Turkey’s Çırağan Palace is also a five-star seaside hotel. India seems to love turning former royal residences into hotels, as I found not one but two “Top 10” articles on the subject within the first 15 seconds of a Google search.

Puts a whole new meaning to the term "Royal Suite"

Puts a whole new meaning to the term “Royal Suite”

Remaining in private use as the ex-royals’ home

Vrana Palace image by the Bulgarian Archives State Agency

This is the rarest of all the possible fates, but it does sometimes happen. Pictured above is Vrana Palace, one of the former royal palaces of the tsars of Bulgaria. After World War II, Communists seized power in Bulgaria (with Soviet backing, of course) and the palace was used by the country’s Communist leaders. After the Cold War ended and the country became a democracy, its Constitutional Court ruled in 1998 that the palace was the private property of Simeon II, the former tsar. He lives in a former hunting lodge on the palace grounds, and opens up the palace itself to the public on the weekends.

The Hohenzollern Castle in Germany is still owned by the Hohenzollern family – the former imperial family that had once served as Germany’s kaisers. They haven’t lived in the castle since the 1940s, however, instead using it as a museum of their family’s former glory, showcasing their crown jewels. They also host a summer camp for children on the castle grounds.

The Queen’s Tower in Greece, however, has one of the strangest post-royal histories. It was built by King Otto, the first king of Greece, for his wife (hence the name). When he was overthrown and replaced by a new king, Otto sold the tower to the Serpieri family. Today, that family has turned the palace into a vineyard and dairy farm.

It seems the fates of former royal palaces are just as varied as the palaces themselves.