It's the story that everyone knows: Jesus was born in a barn, surrounded by farm animals and shepherds, because there was no room at the inn.
But now, a British biblical scholar is challenging the nativity tale, and insists that a closer reading of the Gospel of Luke demonstrates that Mary is more likely to have given birth from the comfort of a family's upper room.
"I am sorry to spoil your preparations for Christmas," wrote Reverend Ian Paul on his blog, an evangelical scholar at the University of Nottingham, "but Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case."
This misconception hinges, he claims, on the mistranslation of the Greek word "kataluma", which has historically been taken to mean inn.
The word is used elsewhere in the bible as a word to mean "private upper room" where Jesus and his disciples ate the Last Supper in the Gospel of Mark. Meanwhile, Luke uses another word - "pandocheion", meaning a gathering place for travellers - to refer to an inn.
How Christmas is celebrated around the world
How Christmas is celebrated around the world
In Japan, people book into KFC restaurants or pre-order their KFC Christmas dinners months in advance f the 25th December, to make sure they can eat their traditional fried chicken. The specific eating of KFC on Christmas day was started by an advertising campaign run by the fast-food chain in 1974, and worked so well that it has passed into lore
In Catalonia a small log, with a red hat, is looked after by children. The Tio de Nadal, or poo log, is kept warm under a blanket and 'fed' Turron every evening from 8 December to ensure he eventually poos out lots of treats on Christmas Eve.
Another Catalonian tradition is the the Caganer, a small figure sometimes modeled on public figures, who is always shown crouching with his pants around his ankles while he defecates on the floor. The figurine is placed among nativity scenes, and his faeces is seen as a sign of good luck as it fertilizes the earth, helping to bring a good harvest the next year
AFP PHOTO/LLUIS GENE
Children in Germany put out their shoes to be filled with sweets, not stockings, and they do this much earlier in the month, on 5 December. If they have been bad, their shoe will contain branches with their presents - which is supposed to represent a hiding
Norwegian tradition dictates that witches and evil spirits arise on Christmas Eve, steal peoples' broomsticks and fly through the air. This is why people hide their broomsticks the day before Christmas - and any other similar items - to prevent this
Canada's postal service dedicates time every year to responding to children's letters to Santa, and has a special postal code - H0H 0H0 - where letters can be addressed to. More than 15 million letters are thought to have been responded to in the past 27 years, and they now respond to emails, too
7/10 South Africa
To keep kids from being too greedy around Christmas, South Africa has the legend of Danny, a little boy who was brutally murdered by his grandmother because he ate Santa's cookies.
In some Austrian alpine towns, young men dress up as the terrifying Krampus - the storied anti-Saint Nick who beats naughty children with tree branches.
The old Estonian tradition of a family sauna at Christmas (and New Years) endures. It's normally done just before a Christmas eve church service.
At Christmas time Guatemalans sweep their homes, collect the dust and place it at the foot of a neighbourhood effigy of the devil.
AFP / Getty
There's a social context Rev Paul believes modern readers are missing, too.
He writes: "In the first place, it would be unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his place of ancestral origins, would not have been received by family members, even if they were not close relatives."
Taking into account the fact that most people's homes at the time would have had one room for family, and either a second room for guests and animals, or a space on the roof, it seems, he says, much more likely that there would have been no space in the guestroom.
"The family guest room is already full, probably with other relatives who arrived earlier," he argues. "So Joseph and Mary must stay with the family itself, in the main room of the house, and there Mary gives birth."
The manger aspect of the story is easily explained too. "The most natural place to lay the baby" would have been "in the straw-filled depressions at the lower end of the house where the animals are fed", says Rev Paul.
So what does this mean for our religious understanding of the story? Some scholars, including Rev Paul, believe that the story as we have it today promotes the idea that Christ is somehow ostracised from society, rejected by his people and forced into a lowly cattleshed. Instead, he says, we should be seeing the newborn Jesus as arriving in a busy, loving and welcoming family home - and not distanced from humanity.Reuse content