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Myths and truth surround Christmas

From Frosty the Snowman to Jack Frost to Scrooge's otherworldly visitors, Christmas is chock-full of the fanciful and fictitious.

But, as it turns out, even some of the season's traditions that have been taken as fact - such as those about the actual date of Jesus' birth or the number of wise men - turn out to be questionable or downright wrong.

Beware ye who enter here, traditions will be challenged.

Late-arriving magi

At the risk of incurring the wrath of Nativity scene manufacturers and Sunday School teachers everywhere, the biblical accounts of Jesus' birth don't seem to place the magi on the scene the night Jesus was born.

Michael Holmes, chairman of the biblical and theological studies department at Bethel University in St. Paul, points to the second chapter of Matthew. The passage reads, "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?' "

"So it is clear from the text that it was only after the birth of Jesus that the wise men appeared in Jerusalem and had an audience with Herod, who directed them - only after he called a meeting of his advisors to learn where the child had been born - to go to Bethlehem," Holmes said in an e-mail interview.

He said it could have been weeks or months after the birth of Jesus that the magi found the child.

How many kings?

"We three kings of orient are bearing gifts; we traverse afar," or so the carol goes.

The only problem is Matthew is the only one of the four New Testament Gospels that records the visit of the magi, and his account doesn't say there were three wise men. Monsignor Robert Laliberte, who teaches at Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo, said there's no way to determine the number of magi from the Biblical text.

The account does say the magi gave three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh). Paul Rainbow, professor of New Testament at Sioux Falls Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D., said that the notion of three magi probably comes from the mention of those three gifts.

"But there's nothing to say how many people brought gold, how many people brought frankincense and myrrh," he said.

Turns out "We Three Kings" could have been "We Twelve Kings," or more.

Beast of burden

"An ordinary donkey gave baby Jesus a gift before he was born by carrying Mary safely to Bethlehem," reads a Web site from which you can order 3-inch polymer statues of the aforementioned beast of burden.

Even though the picture of the expectant Mary riding to Bethlehem on a donkey might be the perfect image for use in Sunday School coloring pages, neither the book of Matthew nor the book of Luke record it. Luke says that they traveled to Bethlehem, but gives no details about how they got there.

Of course, the Biblical account doesn't rule out the possibility that Mary made the journey in that manner, but neither does it include it.

Unknown birth date

Christmas is sometimes referred to as Jesus' birthday. Of course, Christians do celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25. But the general consensus seems to be that we don't know the date of Jesus' birth.

"Neither the year nor the date of Jesus' birth is known," Holmes said. "There are simply no surviving records that preserve this information."

Further, Laliberte said, "The church in Rome, which first established the feast on the 25th, never insisted that that was the day on which he was actually born."

Historians surmise that Dec. 25 was probably chosen because that was the date when the Romans celebrated a pagan festival called Natalis Solis Invicti, "the birth of the invincible sun," Rainbow said.

"And this Christian date was probably chosen to oppose that (pagan) one," he said.