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What's Up with Our Obsession with the Baby Jesus?

A infant Jesus is a whole lot more pleasing to look at than an emaciated hipster on a crucifix.
December 22, 2015, 5:00am
Painting by Gerard van Honthorst

This Christmas, roughly a third of the world's population will gather with their families to praise the virgin birth of "baby Jesus." In America, we have an especially acute case of baby Jesus mania. Here, you can get a cheap-looking cardboard standee from Wal-Mart or one with "real eyelashes" on eBay; while people leave $50,000 checks under baby Jesuses in Nativity scenes and brew "Sweet Baby Jesus" beer. It's gotten so crazy over the past decade that churches nationwide have to monitor their nativity displays because there's been a increasing number of baby Jesus thefts.

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This whole obsession we have with the baby Jesus comes off a bit strange considering Jesus became a fully-grown fella who, at the very least, preached forgiveness, love, and kindness for all. (And at the most, was capital-g God and rose from the dead…) So, why are we so into an infantile savior? Well, for starters, it's because Jesus wasn't just any baby, he was a super baby.

"He's basically supernatural," said Brent Landau, professor of religion at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey at Bethlehem. "He has super powers."

Landau specializes in non-canonical infancy narratives, ancient texts that reference/contribute to the "sanctioned" stories found in the Bible. Think of the Bible as we know it today as a big budget screenplay that's only been "locked in" after dozens of writers, hundreds of drafts, and thousands of studio notes. The non-canonical texts that Landau studies, then, are those rough first attempts by lone writers, tapping their plot points away in obscurity. So, while these may include vast sections that were left on the cutting room floor, occasionally they generated hints of ideas that ultimately ended up in the final box-office smash.

Among the texts Landau has researched is one known as "Infancy Gospel X," which includes a first-person account by a "magi" who examined Jesus shortly after his birth. As explained by the narrator, the baby has a "shining in his body, light to carry, and brilliant to look at." The narrator was also "greatly amazed that he was not crying, as newborn children normally do." To see how this tale of a non-crying baby continued to spread, check out the lyric from the 1884 Christmas carol "Away in a Manger," which goes: "But little lord Jesus, no crying he makes."

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But, that's not all. "When [Jesus] comes out, he's not dirty. He's not covered in goop, all of that stuff," said Landau. "He's clean. He sort of just materializes. The text actually has Jesus as this beam of light that morphs into the form of the child."

Now, eyewitness verifications are tough enough when you're questioning a person a few hours after the fact, let alone via two-thousand-year-old stories transcribed after multi-generational games of telephone. But whether or not any of this occurred, surely, is besides the point. Instead, it's worth looking into why early Christians felt it necessary to make Jesus's birth so magical. To answer that, we turn to his death.

"The fact that [Jesus] died by crucifixion, a horrible, kind of shameful, humiliating death, really was not in line with expectations of what a messiah was supposed to do," said Landau. "A messiah was supposed be this huge conquering figure, kicking out the Romans, all that stuff."

To make sense of it, they refocused the narrative: Jesus was not only a prophet, but also God. It's a pretty big tweak to the story, one that required a not-insignificant amount of retrofitting. "People get curious," said Landau. "OK, if he was God from birth, then how was his birth born out as special?" Surely, God isn't going to waltz into our world in human-form without making a damn entrance. And so you get the superpowers, the establishing of "street bonafides" by having him born in a barn, the prophecies that foretold his birth.

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But you also need something else: A date on the calendar so his followers can codify their celebrations.

Despite attempts by the right wing to use this time of year to stoke the fires of a false "War on Christmas" narrative, the actual birth of Jesus has little to do with the Christmas. There's no place in the Bible that states the exact date—nor the season—when Jesus was born. Rather, the Christmas holiday has roots in the same celebration that's occurred on or around December 25th since humans were aware, even subconsciously, that the sun is in the sky longer than it was yesterday: The Winter Solstice.

"[This celebration] is ingrained in the human psyche and cycle of life," said Landau. "We need something to celebrate in the middle of winter."

You have any number of prehistoric civilizations using this time of year to get together and throw a feast, but in the year 274, Roman emperor Aurelian focused the date a bit. He decreed that December 25th was the Feast of Sol Invictus, a cult that worshipped the "Unconquered Sun." As the Christian influence spread, they felt their "birth of the son" fit in well with the decreed "birth of the sun" and decided to co-opt it. In the year 336, then, you get the first example of Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus on that same date.

But there's still a long way to go from whatever secretive candlelit ceremonies were being undertaken back then to today's plastic nativity scenes. In between, there's a whole lot of drunken debauchery.

Pagans celebrating in the Winter Solstice. Painting by Thomas Couture.

Christmas celebrations before the 19th century were not the quaint family affairs we've come to know, but were more akin to the outdoor orgies of Mardi Gras; farmers had free time (their fields were frozen over) and needed ways to kill it (winter was when wine and beer was traditionally ready to drink). As Stephen Nissenbaum writes in his fascinating book, The Battle For Christmas, "it involved behavior that most of us would find offensive and even shocking today—rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often involving the threat of doing harm), and even the invasion of wealthy homes." More The Purge than Love, Actually.

This is also where the tradition of Christmas carols originates: "Roving bands of youthful males," as Nissenbaum puts it, would travel to the houses of the rich and regale them with songs laced with explicit threats of what'd happen if they didn't hand over booze. Here's one of the songs, known as "wassails": "We've come here to claim our right / And if you don't open your door / We will lay you flat upon the floor."

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The Puritans, as they were wont to do, spoiled all of this fun by making Christmas celebrations illegal in New England for awhile. Sure, they didn't like people getting hammered and roaming the streets, but they also weren't fans of the lack of Biblical evidence that Jesus was born on a specific date. Their Lithgow-in-Footloose routine dampened Christmas. The holiday was so insignificant that the Founding Fathers didn't even bother taking it off in 1789.

Photo via Flickr user Waiting For The Word.

The whole thing didn't get reintroduced until writer Washington Irving released fictional depictions of "old English Christmas traditions" in the 1810s. This was soon followed by his pal Clement Clarke Moore's publication of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Americans read those, felt pangs of nostalgia over things that really never took place, and the holiday was domesticated away from its earlier rancorous feast. By 1870, celebrations had expanded enough for President Ulysses S. Grant to declare Christmas a federal holiday.

Jesus gets the most recognized birthday of all because his proponents got lucky and intertwined that celebration with the real deity of the season: "There are scholars who make argument that Christmas is about worshipping a god, but the god is Santa," said Landau. "Not saying literally he exists, but in terms of the way Santa is presented, doing miraculous things like knowing when you've been sleeping, knowing when you're awake. He's basically a god-like figure."

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This all coincided with another change in popular mindset. "It's only in the 19th century that people start to pay attention to children," said Landau. Before then, the feeling was more that children should be seen, not heard. "Children were almost sub-human." But that sentiment's changed: Children being the future, and so on. With the celebration becoming domesticated, what better way to symbolize it than by celebrating a family bringing a new child into the world?

So, with the continuing expansion of Christianity across America during this second wave of holiday co-option, so boomed the plastic baby Jesus dolls industry.

Birth of the Buddah. Uploaded by Wikimedia Commons user Sacca.

Christianity is not particularly unique in the realm of worshipping magical children. While the other two "big three" religions of Judaism and Islam—"big three" being a misnomer, considering "non-religious/atheist" is the third most populous belief, while Judaism is ranked way down at number 11—don't participate in baby worship, there are plenty of examples in predominantly-Indian religions.

Similar to Christianity, Buddhism celebrates the "miraculous birth" of their god, Gautama Buddha, during the feast Vesak. (The specific days are up for grabs, mostly dependent on the calendar quirks of each nation, but usually in April or May.) Like Jesus, when Buddha was born, his mother was surrounded by angels and he left the womb "clean and unsoiled." Hinduism, one of the world's oldest religions, has numerous festivals celebrating births of deities. "[W]ithin Hindu traditions, there is a strong impulse to imagine god as both a child or as a youth," wrote Archana Venkatesan, a department chair of Religious Studies at UC Davis. "[Worshipping a child] is one of the many preferred modes of devotion within several Hindu sects."

So, no. Christians aren't alone in their praise of babies. And it's pretty easy to see why. They're kind of magic. They're these tiny creatures that seem to have sprung from nothingness and have yet to act dumb, or form silly opinions, or perform acts of hatred. They're unsullied nature allows us to believe that, at its core, humanity is innocent and pure, too. They're a blank slate for us to pin our hopes and dreams, tiny avatars for our ever-aching and crippling bodies, back when we weren't abused and scarred by the world, when we felt wonder. And, you know, they're just fucking cute, particularly when they're not crying or crapping their pants. Not to mention, they're a whole lot more appealing to look at that an emaciated hipster hanging on a cross.

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