Today while attending the LDS Church, my whole family was treated to a generous helping of "The Christmas Story". You know, the one with Mary and the angel, the shepherds, the wise men, the census, and the slaughter of the innocents? At some point during the Sacrament Meeting I just couldn't take it anymore, leaned over to my oldest daughter (Echo, 6), and whispered, "You know, even if Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it didn't happen the way they're talking about it."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Well, you know how we watched Return to Oz a few months ago after we'd read some of the Oz books and you noticed that they pulled bits and pieces from a couple different books together to make a whole story?"
"Oh yeah, like how they had the gnome king steal all of the emeralds? Or how the person with all of the different heads was just mean, not evil like in the movie?" (Note, Return to Oz was a fun movie that still attempts some interesting interpretations of Oz, but after reading some of the books with Echo it lost a lot of its charm.)
"Yeah. Did you know there's two Christmas stories from the scriptures and they have almost nothing in common? They usually get all mixed up together just like the movie was all mixed up together."
When we got home we sat down and read the birth narrative from Matthew 1, the Annunciation from Luke 1, and the birth narrative from Luke 2 (all from the NSRV because she's six and what bright idiot ever thought that six-year-olds could follow and understand King James English? Sheesh, LDS primaries, I tell you...).
You should try this sometime; it's very enlightening. Try to answer the following questions only from the perspective of each story: What city does the story begin in? From where and to where do the characters journey? Which parent receives visions and is told to name the baby? What happens after the birth in Bethlehem?
Basically, what we've usually been raised to understand as a full, complete story, is in fact two very distinct stories. The only real aspects that are in common between the two are:
Jesus is born in Bethlehem
Mary is pregnant "by the Holy Ghost" before she is married to Joseph.
There is no number 3.
Every other thing, from the star to the shepherds, the wise men, King Herod, the census, the flight into Egypt, the manger, practically every other detail is unique to one story or the other. It's really quite amazing when you first realize it. Sitting there with Echo after Church, going through each story and seeing her recognize just how conflicting the stories are was a lot of fun.
After we finished talking about it all for a bit, I asked her which story she liked better. "I liked the one where the babies didn't die, because I don't like babies dying. And because Mary is the one talking to angels and she's the one who gets to name Jesus. The other story is all about Joseph and I don't like that."
In the end, we agreed to disagree on a few things (this is very important in our family; we do not want to ruin our child's religious upbringing by telling her to think the way we think and she knows her parents already don't agree on everything in religion): I said that I thought the real, historical Jesus was probably born in Nazareth in a very normal way and both stories weren't true. She said that she thought Jesus was born the way Luke said he was born: his family was from Nazareth, but Jesus was born during a trip to Bethlehem. I'm glad that she has such a belief, both because I know now that it's a belief she's thought about a little in her wonderfully smart 6-year-old mind (though I suspect she think's Luke story is accurate because Luke's story is simply much more engaging and better told than Matthew's) and also because I think having, at her young age, a more "normal" belief on this will help keep her out of social trouble among her Mormon and Christian peers should it ever come up.