What Happened on the First Christmas?

There were no Christmas trees, decorations, warm cookies, or snow on the first Christmas. However, the world received the greatest gift of all on that day: Jesus Christ, the Savior and promised Messiah.

Nativity scene painted as the wise men approach Jesus

Before a play at a theater begins, everything must be in place including the audience in their seats, the stage dressed in backdrops, the actors prepared behind the curtains, and the orchestra warmed up and ready to play in the orchestra pit below the stage.

When all these factors have been prepared, then the lights are dimmed, and the show can start. The curtains lift to reveal the events of the play.

Like the careful planning for a play at a theater, God perfectly timed the coming of His Son. He prepared key individuals and events to fulfill His promises and the prophecy of His Word.

On that first Christmas, everything was perfectly set in place for the coming of the promised Messiah. The events and timing were not random or by chance, but divinely planned. Christ’s first advent was God’s intentional breaking into history to unravel His plan of salvation.

Setting the Stage for the First Christmas

To understand the first Christmas, background information is needed. For over 400 years since the events found in the last book in the Old Testament, Malachi, there were no new revelations from God. To the Israelites, the Lord was silent.

However, the Jews knew that God had promised to restore His kingdom and usher in a new King. Because of the prophecy contained in God’s Word, many Israelites expectantly awaited God’s work. Significantly, God was at work in preparation for the coming of His Son.

The Lord sent Gabriel to deliver messages to key people who would be involved in the events of the first Christmas. First, God sent Gabriel to tell Zechariah that his wife, Elizabeth, would have a child in her old age (Luke 1:11-13). This child would be John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for the Messiah’s ministry (Luke 1:16-17).

Although Zechariah did not believe the message, which caused Gabriel to make Zechariah mute, he finally did believe when John was born. Prophetically, Zechariah proclaimed words about God’s work of salvation and John’s role in preparing the way for the Lord Jesus (Luke 1:67-79).

Both Mary and Joseph also received messages from an angel. Mary, a young virgin, was told by Gabriel that she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to the promised Messiah, who would sit on the throne of David (Luke 1:26-37).

Such a message would have been challenging for a virgin betrothed to be married, which is why Mary’s faith is an important part of the Christmas story (Luke 1:46-55). She believed the Lord and simply said, “I am the Lord’s slave” (Luke 1:38, HCSB).

During these events, Joseph learned about Mary’s pregnancy and sought to divorce her (Matthew 1:18-19). However, an angel appeared to him in a dream and explained that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit and had not been unfaithful (Matthew 1:20).

As Joseph was told, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, NIV).

Joseph’s role in the Christmas story is important as well since he took Mary with him when they registered in his family’s hometown, Bethlehem, as part of the royal census declared by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-5).

The Main Event of the First Christmas

As Joseph and Mary were traveling to Bethlehem, the time came for her to give birth. In the small and overlooked town of Bethlehem, the virgin gave birth to Jesus (Matthew 2:5-6; Luke 2:7). Because Scripture records that she placed Jesus in a feeding trough after he was born, many believe that Jesus was born in a stable (Luke 2:7).

While the text does not specifically mention if He were born in a stable, it is known that Christ was born in Bethlehem, a humble yet significant location.

Micah foretold that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, as is said in Micah 5:2: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient time.”

Also, Joseph registering in the town of David demonstrated that he was in the line of David, which placed Jesus in the royal line of Judah.

Furthermore, Jesus being born to Mary, a virgin, was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Isaiah 7:14 specifically mentions that a virgin would give birth to a son named Immanuel, which is exactly what happened (Matthew 1:22-23).

Miraculously, Jesus was born to a virgin, an impossible feat apart from the Lord. Skeptics will scoff at this scriptural teaching, but the virgin birth is a longstanding mark of orthodoxy and doctrine among Christians, holding significant theological implications if denied.

The name of the newly born Messiah conveys His significant purpose for coming into the world. Specifically, the name “Jesus” reveals that “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Based on the Hebrew and Aramaic origin on His name, the name “Jesus” means “Yahweh rescues” or “the Lord saves.”

Also, Jesus was called Immanuel in fulfillment of prophecy, a name, which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). As the Gospel of John describes, Jesus is God who came on that first Christmas and “made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Christ is the salvation for all people, both the light for the Gentiles and the glory of Israel, as Simeon prophesied at Jesus’ dedication at the Temple (Matthew 2:22-23; 28-32). No ordinary baby was born on that first Christmas. Rather, Jesus the Messiah, the King of kings, Savior, and Son of God came into the world.

The Supporting Events of the First Christmas

Although one would think that the King of the universe would be born with great trumpery and fanfare, shepherds and foreign wise men were the ones who traveled to greet the newborn Jesus.

Angels announced Christ’s birth to shepherds, who would have been in one of the lowest social standings of that time. The shepherds heard the wonderful news: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11, NIV).

In amazement, the shepherds went to see the newly born Jesus, whom they found lying in a manger, just as the angels had said (Luke 2:15-16). In response to personally seeing Christ, the lowly shepherds joyously spread the news about Him (Luke 2:17-18).

Wise men from the East also traveled to meet the newborn King and Messiah. They did not arrive on the first Christmas, as is commonly depicted in movies and decorations, but they are an important part of the account of Christ’s birth.

Likely, the wise men arrived after the birth of Christ, possibly when Jesus was at most two years old. This would explain Herod’s order to kill all the boys in Bethlehem under the age of two (Matthew 2:16).

Upon entering Jerusalem, the wise men asked King Herod where the newly born King was since they saw His star in the sky (Matthew 2:1-2). Based on Scripture, the priests and scribes told Herod that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:3-6).

Instead of being overjoyed that the Messiah had come, Herod felt threatened by this newly born King, which is why he asked the wise men to report the Messiah’s location to him (Matthew 2:7-8).

Upon finding the house where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived, the wise men entered and worshiped the Lord Christ (Matthew 2:9-11). They offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).

Each gift was worthy of a king and represented Jesus’ deity and kingship (gold), His messiahship and worthiness to be worshiped (frankincense), and his sacrificial death (myrrh).

After worshiping Christ and presenting Him with these gifts, the wise men left a different way than they had arrived since they were warned in a dream about Herod (Matthew 2:12).

In his rage for not learning the location of the Messiah, Herod ordered the massacre of all male children aged two and under in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus to Egypt after being warned in a dream by an angel, which protected Christ from the violence of Herod (Matthew 2:13).

Only the Beginning Act of the First Christmas

Christmas is the remembrance of Christ’s coming into the world. His birth is the first act of many in the divine purpose for His coming, which was ultimately to save mankind from their sins (Mark 10:45; Luke 19:10).

There were no Christmas trees, decorations, warm cookies, or snow on the first Christmas. However, the world received the greatest gift of all on that day: Jesus Christ, the Savior and promised Messiah.

For further reading: 

What Is the Full Story of Jesus’ Birth?

What Is the Significance of the Star of Bethlehem?

What Is the Significance of the Three Wise Men and Their Gifts?

Can the Word ‘Nativity’ Be Found in the Bible?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Maciej Sojka


Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. Holding a Bachelor of Arts in Ministry and currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Ministry, she is passionate about the Bible and her faith in Jesus. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.