Cover Image: The First Christmas

The First Christmas

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The First Christmas was an interesting retelling of the nativity story. This story is told from the POV of the seven characters directly involved in the Christmas story: The Innkeeper, The Ox, The Shepherds, Maryam (Mary), Yosef (Joseph), The Wise Men, and The Donkey.
These chapters are fairly short, with an interlude in between where the author details his research, his thoughts, etc. I enjoyed most of the chapters, even if/when they conflicted to what I’ve been taught in my Baptist upbringing. The Ox and The Donkey chapters were very entertaining (I mean-we are getting the thoughts of the animals who witnessed the birth of Jesus!). The Shepherds was pure entertainment! These guys where very down to earth, comical, but understood the significance of the birth of Jesus. Maryam and Yosef’s stories were also interesting in the presentation and provided some thoughts to ponder. The Wise Men’s chapter was my least favorite-it took a hard left turn to what I’ve been taught about the nativity story for 50 years.
Overall, I enjoyed reading a different perspective on the Christmas story. At the end of the day, as a believer, I love hearing of the birth of my savior, and how it directly impacted those around Him.
Thank you to @netgalley and @stmartins for the advanced e-copy of #thefirstchristmas.
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I had very mixed feelings about this book. Some chapters made me laugh and some made me think, but some were just very odd. One thing that bothered me is that while the author obviously did much research to be historically accurate, he wrote that Jesus was buried in a mass grave, when it's historically known that this is untrue. I understand that this is not a story about the man Jesus of Nazareth not the Messiah, so I didn't expect this book to cover the Resurrection, but I don't like or understand why this fact was changed. Overall it was an interesting read, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it.
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A book that takes the reader behind the scenes of all of the participants in the first Christmas in a manger in Bethlehem - even to the donkey that carried this couple to their destination.  Each chapter focuses on one piece of this historic moment.    

While I enjoyed some chapters more than others, it was fun to read during the holiday season and to take an in depth look into those people who were a part of this moment in time.  I don't know what I was doing while reading the chapter on the wise men, but for me it felt out of place and I felt as though it went a little off and didn't quite fit in with the rest.  I of course loved the chapters that centered around Mary and Joseph and gave the "origin" story of how they ended up there and their thoughts about the situation they found themselves in.    

I listened to this one on audio and it was a great companion while I was doing those things as I got my house and myself ready for the holidays.
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This is a lyrical telling of the nativity story, seen through the eyes of each character. Yes, even the animals. You will feel the feelings, and smell the smells. Worth reading.
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When I agreed to read and review The First Christmas, I didn’t know what exactly I decided to review. I thought I would read a book about The First Christmas from the blurb that the author told from the POV of an ox and donkey. Then I reread the blurb and saw that the author would tell it from the ox and donkey and Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men. At that point, I had already downloaded it from NetGalley, so that I couldn’t change my mind.

I did think that The First Christmas was an imaginative retelling of Christ’s birth. But, honestly, I could have done without the interludes in between each chapter. Not that they added insight (because they did), but I thought it dragged the book in parts. I didn’t care about the historical information behind each chapter. I also didn’t care about the “what ifs.” As I mentioned, I thought it made the book drag in places.

My favorite chapters were the ones with the Ox and the Donkey. They were two different animals with different views on the stable and the visitors. Those two chapters made me smile because animals are so innocent and pure. I liked the donkey’s history behind seeing angels. I did get a little laugh out of that.

The author did an excellent job of bringing this book to life. Each character had an individual voice and personality.

The First Christmas is not a book that I would usually read, and I probably will not read again. But, saying that, it was an interesting read, and I did enjoy reading it.

I would recommend The First Christmas to anyone over the age of 13. It is a clean book (no sex or swearing).
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My Review:  Like usual, I have been on a hunt for new Christmas stories, this one had me really intrigued. I have to say this was the most unique, yet familiar Christmas book I have come across to date! While this does tell the traditional Christmas story of Jesus' birth, it is a completely new take on it, and honestly may not be the best choice for hardcore Christians, but I found it a very interesting read. It tells the story of the birth of Jesus, from various perspectives not the usual way you hear the story told. It also really gives some food for thought as Mitchell examines what the characters of the Nativity could have possibly been thinking and processing at the time about without the long held beliefs and knowledge of the full Bible story. This was truly a unique book and one I plan on revisiting with a pen and a pad of paper to jot down my own thoughts. It may not be for everyone as I said before but at least give it a try, if for nothing else then just for the ox and donkey's perspectives.

My Rating: I really enjoyed this one, the old familiar story with a new perspective and view, it was rather refreshing to me.  As I said before, it may not appeal to everyone, especially those who cherish the Christian Christmas Nativity story but I hope some of you are open minded enough to give it a try, I give it a rating of Four Paws.
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The premise of this book caught my attention and had me looking forward to reading it. The birth of Christ is told through the characters present that holy night … including the ox and donkey. There were some moments of humor and, unfortunately, I imagine many Christians will be offended by the way the story is portrayed. The chapters did not flow well and seemed to jump between character views and author’s philosophical/religious opinion. It had so much potential and I am sad at the presentation that resulted.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Essentials for my advanced review copy. All opinions and thoughts are my own.
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This is the story of the Nativity told through the eyes of some of the people that were there, including an ox and the donkey that carried Mary.  Each chapter is unique to each individuals perspective. I enjoyed the story told this way and to read how the people from that era probably felt about it. They didn't realize the real meaning of the birth, but did know that it was something special
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This is a different take on the first Chritmas. It was actually done through the eyes of others. I felt it hit a lot of points that I knew from reading the bible. It also opened my eyes to other things that may or may not have happened. 

** I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a honest review**
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The First Christmas is a unique retelling of the birth of Jesus, using the traditions of the time and an interesting cast of characters.

Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of varying individuals from Mary’s donkey to the innkeeper to the animals gathered to witness the birth of Christ. What I found unique was the marrying of what I (Christians) know from the scriptures with the actual living conditions of the time, the traditions, the mindset, and what had to be, at times, terrifying to those witnessing these events.

The First Christmas is not a romance, but it is a love story – one that continues to this day and beyond.

I enjoyed the experience and felt it was a totally unique way to bring us into the reality of the world at that time.

*I received an e-ARC of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley. That does not change what I think of this story. It is my choice to leave a review giving my personal opinion about this book.*
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The First Christmas

by Stephen Mitchell

While I am not a theological scholar, I have been a Christian for over sixty years. Those are years in which I have studied the Bible, and God has grown my faith. When the author of this book gives an interpretation that I disagree with, I can accept that as a difference of opinion. An example in Stephen Mitchell’s The First Christmas is the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary. In the Bible this event is reported in chapter one of Luke. I believe this account literally, that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in a physical form and spoke to her in an audible voice. In fact, there is a dialogue recorded there. The author wants to interpret the appearance as a bright light (“the best I could come up with,” he says) and its communication as “empathy and telepathy,” nothing “so gross as speech.” Based on the writings in Luke, the author is creating a fiction that, though unconfirmed, could have happened. Many describe near death experiences as a comforting, blinding, white light. So, here, the author is using his imagination within the context of an angel visiting Mary.

What is more believable in his telling of the story are the extensive thought processes that Mary must surely have engaged in during the days and months following the angel’s announcement that she had been chosen to bear the Son of God as He comes to Earth in human form. The Bible doesn’t give details of all of her thoughts and feelings, but it does record her song of praise often called The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Luke also shows us that her response is meditative.

There were shepherds who had an angelic visitation. After that they came to worship the baby Jesus, explaining how they found the little family in Bethlehem filled with visitors paying their taxes. “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Using common sense and based on Biblical evidence that Mary was a reflective person, the inner dialogue the author creates is believable, even if you don’t agree with all the fictional details.

There are some larger issues with this novel, however, that bother me. Mary says “No one had ever prophesied that the Messiah would never die.” This statement skirts the issue that there were many Old Testament prophecies which predict the Messiah would be resurrected to reign in His eternal kingdom. Her statement feels like a deliberate distraction in the text. Author Mitchell is clear that Mary would know the Jewish teachings. Therefore, she would have been aware of the many prophesies that Jesus would be resurrected and sit on the right hand of God the Father (Psalm 110:1). Psalm 49:15 says “But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for He shall receive me.” Interpretations are acceptable, but contradictions are not.

The format of the book is interesting. The author states “my only agenda was to inhabit the characters.” He tries to put himself into an ancient time and experience it as each of the characters in the Nativity story might have. As he looks at the role each person or animal had in this pivotal moment, the author makes the decision to tell the story in the third person for the people and first person for the animals. He separates the chapters with an “Interlude” which is his opportunity to reveal his thoughts as an author and provide some background information. This format (which he explains in an Interlude is based on “the glorified sestet of an Italian sonnet) is a good choice for this book. Unfortunately, the author deviates in the second part of Mary’s story and interrupts the tale as he inserts his “authorial I” into her story rather than waiting for the Interlude. This happens again in Joseph’s story. In general I found Joseph’s tale more convincingly told. Oddly though, Mary and Joseph were approached in the book by angels who were totally different in appearance with Joseph’s angel not even culturally appropriate to the time period. 

The section of The First Christmas that tells of the visit of the wise men is an elaborate fictional tale of two Jewish scholars who travel to the East  studying Buddhism and other mystic philosophies that concentrate on meditation and finding the god within. It deviates from Scripture in many ways, most notably in the visions of the future of Jesus and his family that the men have as they sit with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. (In the book, they visit the family in the stable whereas most Christians believe this visit occurred somewhat later as the Bible says the wise men or magi went to a house.) If you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and He was with God from before the creation of the world, as set forth in John 1:1-3, then much of this chapter is disturbing. They envision a confused young man, estranged from His family, and perhaps mentally deranged. A reading of any one of the four gospels shows anything but what they see for His future. He was fully man and fully God. Their supposed vision is not in character. They even shortcut and omit important parts of His death, fantasize his burial in a mass grave, and totally neglect His resurrection.

The last major section focuses on the donkey and is my favorite. The donkey tell the Nativity story from his perspective. Recalling ancient donkey traditions, he retells the Biblical story of Balaam’s donkey who could both see angels and could talk. He points out the good qualities of donkeys—intelligence, honesty, service, dignity, and trustworthiness.

I have an admiration for the author as a multi-lingual translator, well-versed in many Eastern religions and philosophies. He possesses a great imagination and makes connections from various works of literature. I hope that he will return to the Bible to connect with Jesus in a personal relationship. I don’t regret reading The First Christmas as an intellectual exercise, but I don’t recommend it as an Advent activity or as a pleasure read. 

I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to St. Martin’s Press for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 2/5

Category: Religion & Spirituality, General Fiction (Adult)

Publication:   November 9, 2021—St. Martin’s Press

Memorable Lines:

[From the chapter Yosef (Joseph)] Where was the Lord now? Not here, not amid this swirling chaos. But if the Lord was not with him, it was his own fault. He knew that. God had not left him; he had left God. It could be no other way.

[From the chapter Yosef—speaking of Maryam (Mary)] She was graced with a quality he had been striving for all his life, ever since he had realized what his purpose, what the purpose of every Jew, was: to love God with all his heart and to fulfill His commandments as impeccably and with as much joy as he could summon.

[From the chapter The Donkey] …throughout the day angels from every order of the hierarchy descending to take a peek at the new little visitor. They don’t knock or announce themselves; they just fly in through the roof or the walls, without so much as a by-your-leave, and nobody greets or even notices them. When they see me, though, they nod to acknowledge my presence and to let me know that they know I know.
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This was a fascinating book.  The nativity story is told from the perspective of the oxen and the donkey present in the stable.  They witness the  birth and visits from shepherds and wise men who can see the future. There’s a lot of depth to this story, from the introspection of the ox to the  patience of the donkey. 

The author discusses Scripture in alternating chapters that form the backbone for the story.  It’s very powerful and meaningful.  He discusses Mary and Joseph as a young pious Jewish couple, and looks at how each of them might have taken the angel’s visitation and Mary’s subsequent pregnancy from a human point of view.   Was Mary concerned about her reputation?  Did Joseph feel resentful?

I highly recommend this book although the Scriptural discussion may put some readers off.  4 stars.
Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley I received a complimentary copy of this book. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
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I enjoyed this book, some chapters more than others. This is the story of The First Christmas as viewed through the eyes of some of those who were there including The Inn Keeper, an ox, Mary's donkey, the shepherds and the wisemen. Stephen Mitchell took scripture as well as what was known about the customs and history of the time and told the story we know so well from scripture. This is not the picture we westerners have imagined over the years with an angelic Mary holding baby Jesus with halos shining, but an exhausted Mary leaning up against the wall of a stable, a scared couple who could be stoned or killed at any moment for pre-marital sex or infidelity, and two animals who lovingly looked on and observed the miracle of human birth (I loved the comment about the ox wondering why nobody licked the afterbirth off the baby). This is a story of a Miracle, strength, acceptance, belief and love that is the central tenet of Christianity, a relatively short story in the gospels fleshed out in an interesting way that enable me to see, feel and experience the story in new ways. Scripture is included and although there are questions, it is still the story that I know and love. I did a read/listen with this book. The author also narrated the book which allowed him to use his voice to provide emphasis where he wanted, but I found it slow and rather mundane. In this case, I definitely enjoyed reading this one more than listening. If you are looking for a different take on the First Christmas, I recommend you pick this one up.
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As I read through these chapters, a continual feeling occurred that a significant piece was missing in the stories the author was presenting. He tried to approach the characters involved in the Nativity from both the “human” and “animal” points of view which was fine (the account has been presented this way before).  I can agree that no humans involved in the Nativity account really understood the significance of Jesus’ birth. However, in his quest to make this account “acceptable” to people from all different walks of life, he also missed the real significance of the account. I am a Christian and I appreciate the author’s statement that he did not want to disrespect Christians but, in fact, he did.  The heart of the story was removed. The heart of the story is that God sent His Son (who is also God) to Earth in the form of a human for a specific purpose. The purpose—to fulfill the requirement that man could never fulfill. Humans, in our sinful state could never achieve the requirement needed for total forgiveness by God who is holy and without sin. Jesus’ entrance into human history as BOTH fully God and fully Man served as the Messiah— the ONLY means by which this forgiveness could be accomplished. Through His death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus achieved what man never would.
The author points out in his introduction: “Like every magical tale, this one asks us to temporarily suspend our disbelief and expand our imaginations.” For Christians who believe the Bible is the Word of God, this is not a “magical tale”.  It is, in fact, a true account. 

As stated before, I do agree that there is a human aspect to the way people might think, but the approach taken by this author to make the “tale” palatable to as many people as possible is an impossible task. The Jesus presented accurately in the Bible is polarizing. Ultimately, depending on how He is presented, someone will be offended. I have found that people today want to create a god with whom they can feel comfortable. However, that is not the real Jesus. 

I voluntarily reviewed a copy of this book provided by the publisher and Net Galley but the thoughts expressed are my own. I honestly would not recommend this book nor would I purchase it for myself or as a gift.
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Title:   The First Christmas
Author:   Stephen Mitchell
Genre:   Christian
Rating:  2.5 out of 5

In The First Christmas, Stephen Mitchell brings the Nativity story to vivid life as never before. A narrative that is only sketched out in two Gospels becomes fully realized here with nuanced characters and a setting that reflects the culture of the time. Mitchell has suffused the birth of Jesus with a sense of beauty that will delight and astonish readers.

In this version, we see the world through the eyes of a Whitmanesque ox and a visionary donkey, starry-eyed shepherds and Zen-like wise men, each of them providing a unique perspective on a scene that is, in Western culture, the central symbol for good tidings of great joy. Rather than superimposing later Christian concepts onto the Annunciation and Nativity scenes, he imagines Mary and Joseph experiencing the angelic message as a young Jewish woman and man living in the year 4 bce might have experienced it, with terror, dismay, and ultimate acceptance. In this context, their yes becomes an act of great moral courage.

Don’t read this thinking it’s true to biblical accounts or even historical extrapolations. It isn’t. This is pure fiction. And, while it is imaginative, it takes profound liberties with the Bible and skews it to suit the author’s purpose. If you want to read fiction based on the Bible, don’t read something written by an author whose website says he’s been “de-educated through intensive Zen practice.”

Stephen Mitchell was born in Brooklyn. The First Christmas is his newest book.

(Galley courtesy of St. Martin’s Press in exchange for an honest review.)
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I hate giving this book what may seem as a low review. The story recounts events that my church reenacted when I was young. It was a story I really wanted to read. I understood all the information about the first Christmas. Unfortunately, it was very dry and kept relating back and forth in the book the more I read. It definitely is a new way of telling the story of the Lords birth as well as the many struggles that were dealt with. I apologize to the author. I only got about 1/2 way done before it lost me. I hope there are others that appreciate this book more than I.
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A big thank you to the author & to St Martins Press for bringing a unique perspective to the nativity. I loved the concept of “inhabiting” the different characters as the story went on, but it just didn’t translate well for me. I also found the book to have some parts that were overtly sexual unnecessarily, and it was really hard for me to continue reading as a result—so I didn’t. For some it may be a slightly satirical approach (which I generally appreciate, but apparently not as much so when it applies to the Messiah) but it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley and was under no obligation to write a review.
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This is the first book I've ever read from this author and not something I would have normally read, which is probably why I didn't care for it quite as much as I would have liked. There wasn't anything I can point to as to why and I would probably recommend for other who like interesting seasonal stories.
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This was an interesting take on the First Christmas, complete with a POV from the ox and the donkey. It was humorous in some parts (I mean, POV from the ox and donkey?) and overall just a completely different retelling. I'm sure there will be some who will be offended by this book. I'm not a very religious person but am a believer and I did not find this offensive at all. It's just someone's take on how it might have all happened. I have to say I didn't love it but it was enjoyable.

Thank you to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for the review copy.
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A new look at the first Christmas.  The chapters tell the story but the view is divided into the different players, even the ox has a story.  In between the chapters is the verse references with .  I find it interesting to see what time has added to the story. Christmas has certainly become a retail bonanza.  This book is a reminder of what is important in the message of the birth of Christ.
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