It's appropriate at Christmas time to think back to the origin of the holiday: the birth of Jesus Christ. Most people know this story: Jesus was born to Mary & Joseph in Bethlehem, in a stable because there was no other place for them to stay. While Biblical scholars believe it was probably not actually a stable, but rather a ground-floor room of a house where Jesus was born, the fact remains that Joseph and Mary were visitors from out of town who needed lodging. What made them travel 70 plus miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem when Mary was pregnant? A census.

The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus had ordered a census of the entire Roman world, which meant that all those living under his rule had to travel back to their ancestral home to be registered. Since Joseph’s family was from Bethlehem, that’s where he and Mary went, and Jesus happened to be born while they were there. Unlike the ancient Roman census, ours counts people where they presently reside. The results are used to determine not only political representation but also the distribution of billions of federal dollars to states and localities.


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