HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS: CAESAR AUGUSTUS
Perhaps it is fitting that our last historical Nativity character in the History of Christmas series should be the first person mentioned in St. Luke‘s story of the first Christmas. But he was not Jewish, nor a shepherd, nor a Magi. Instead, he was 1500 miles away, the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, after whom is named the month of August. Were it not for his imperial decision, Jesus would not have been born in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth, the home of Mary. And this would have messed up all the Old Testament prophesies.
Augustus succeeded Julius Caesar. Octavius, as he was previously known, was about 18 when Julius died. Julius was his maternal great-uncle who was assassinated in 44 B.C. His mother was the daughter of Julia, the sister of Julius. Octavius was the son of a senator, placing him in the upper class of patricians in Roman society. Julius himself launched Octavius’ career when the latter delivered the public funeral speech for his grandmother Julia when he was only 12. At the age of 15 or 16, he was elevated to the exclusive College of Priests. At 17 he accompanied Julius in the triumph over his opponents defeated in Africa.
Julius’ will was kept by the Vestal Virgins at their temple in the Roman Forum. While some alleged it was forged, the will named Octavius as his adopted son and heir. While Augustus (Octavius, Octavian, Octavianus) would become the first Emperor of Rome (think: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,) he would not have called himself that, rather he would have called himself “First Citizen of Rome,” and his rule, the Principate.
It was because of Augustus’ decree that Mary and Joseph, descendants of the often-married King David, returned to Bethlehem, the City of David. It was here that Mary’s firstborn child was born, according to Luke, and laid in a manger. Certainly, they had not called ahead, and there were a lot of travelers at the time, being the Christmas season and all. Not to mention the census.
HISTORY OF THE WISE MEN
Every Christmas season you’ve heard this song. It has been sung for over 150 years. You’re familiar with the lyrics from this famous 19th century American Christmas carol that begins with the line “We Three Kings of Orient Are…” but it is inaccurate in at least three ways:
- We don’t know how many visitors there were
- But we know they weren’t kings
- They did not originate in the Orient, meaning the Far East
Here’s what we know about these Wise Man.
So how could they have seen the star “in the East” and have arrived in Jerusalem unless they had begun their journey somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? It says in the Gospel of Matthew 2:2
“We saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him.”
One natural explanation is to see it in the sense of “We saw his star when we were in the east and have come from the east to worship him.”
Several traditions place their number at three, with the conjecture of three gifts for three givers: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But some earlier traditions make quite a caravan of their visit, setting their number as high as twelve. (more…)
We’ve mentioned previously that mistletoe was prominent in the traditions of the Druids and the lore of northern Europe. The Druids used the mistletoe of their sacred oak as part of their ritual five days after the new moon following the Winter Solstice. In the Middle Ages, it was hung from ceilings or placed above stable and house doors to drive off evil spirits and to ensure fertility.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on trees. Phoradendron flavescens or Viscum album sends its roots into the tree’s bark and derives its nutrients from the tree itself, though it does engage in photosynthesis.
HISTORY OF LUCIADAGEN
In Sweden, December 13 is Luciadagen, St. Lucia’s Day, or in English, St. Lucy’s Day. It is the beginning of their holiday season. The Lutheran Danes and Norwegians also celebrate this day.
St. Lucia was a young woman who lived in first century Rome. She was a Christian who would not give up her faith to marry an unbeliever. She was tortured and killed by order of the Roman magistrate Paschasius, who ordered her to burn a sacrifice to the Emperor Diocletian‘s image. As the ultimate torture, her eyes were gouged out, but she was miraculously still able to see. Pictures of her depict her holding her eyes on a golden plate, as she remains the patron saint for the blind. Dante consequently mentions Lucia in the Second Canto of his Divine Comedy.
Stories of her courage were brought to Sweden by missionaries where she became known as the Lucia Bride. Old people said the Lucia Bride would go out early in the morning to bring food and drink to the poor. She wore white robes and a crown of light. Lucy, like the Latin lux, means light. Under the old calendar, her day was the shortest of the year.
In the United States, December 12 is National Poinsettia Day.
During college, I studied one summer in Cuernavaca, a little town south of Mexico City. In Mexico, the story is told that long ago the people flocked to church on Christmas Eve because they loved to fill the Christ child’s manger with flowers. A little boy named Jose was too poor to buy any flowers. The story continues that an angel appeared to him and told him to pick some weeds from the side of the road. Following the instructions, Jose brought the weeds to the church. When he put them in the manger, they changed into beautiful scarlet flowers. The Mexicans call them the “Flor de la Noche Buena,” the Flower of Christmas Eve.
Physician and Diplomat
Almost two centuries ago these striking blooms caught the attention of Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, America’s first minister (ambassador) to Mexico between 1825 and 1829. Dr. Poinsett brought the plant to the United States and raised it in his greenhouses in Charleston, South Carolina. It was named in his honor in 1836. The initial Latin name was Euphorbia pulcherrima, “the most beautiful Euphorbia.”
You may know Dr. Poinsett as the founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, the predecessor of the Smithsonian Institution. He had studied law at his father’s insistence, without much interest, before studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He served in both the South Carolina legislature and the United States House of Representatives as well as Secretary of War under President Martin Van Buren. He traveled extensively in Europe, western Asia, and Latin America.
HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS STAR
The Star of Bethlehem has puzzled scholars for centuries. Some have skeptically dismissed the phenomenon as a myth, a mere literary device to call attention to the importance of the Nativity. Others have argued that the star was miraculously placed there to guide the Magi and is therefore beyond all natural explanation. Most, however, take a middle course which looks for some historical explanation for the Christmas star. Several interesting theories have been offered.
- The Greek term for star in the Gospel account, “aster,” can mean any luminous heavenly body, including a comet, meteor, nova, or planet (Greek: wandering star).
- The Chinese have more exact and more complete astronomical records than the Near East, particularly in their tabulations of comets and novae.
- In 1871, the English astronomer John Williams published his authoritative list of comets derived from Chinese annals. Comet No. 52 on the Williams list appeared for some seventy days in March-April of 5 B.C. near the constellation Capricorn and would have been visible in both the Far and Near East. As each night wore on, of course, the comet would seem to have moved westward across the southern sky. The time is also very appropriate. This could indeed have been the Wise Men‘s astral marker. Comet No. 53 on the Williams list is a tailless comet, which could well have been a nova, as Williams admitted. No. 53 appeared in March-April of 4 B.C. — a year after its predecessor — in the area of the constellation Aquila, which was also visible all over the East.
Was this, perhaps the star that reappeared to the Magi once King Herod had directed them to Bethlehem in Matthew 2:9? Comets do not display all the characteristics described in the full Nativity story. A planet or planets seems more likely.
HISTORY OF HEROD THE KING
The Wise men asked Herod the King:
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”
While this seems an unlikely question to ask a client king of the great Roman Empire, they were not asking in a complete vacuum.
The Roman historian Suetonius, who lived in the late 1st and early 2nd century, had written:
“There had spread over all the East an old and established belief, that it was fated at the time for men coming from Judea to rule the world.”
The Roman senator and historian Tacitus who lived at the same time wrote:
“There was a firm persuasion that at this very time the east was to grow powerful and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire a universal empire.”
The Jewish-Roman historian Josephus writes in his Jewish Wars that the Jews believed that:
One from their country would soon become ruler of the habitable world.
However, the Wise Men were asking the currently ruling King of the Jews where the king of the Jews was, perhaps unwisely, and no doubt Herod inferred this as an accusation that he was an imposter. Herod had been particularly paranoid at this time and mistrusted all those around him as contenders for the tenuously held throne.
Instead of imprisoning these Magi for their impudence, he perceptively endeavored to determine how he could get from them any intelligence so he could to eliminate this potential rival. With what he learned from them about the appearance of the Star, as well as what his own scholars gleaned from the Biblical prophecies, Herod determined that this “king of the Jews” was no more than two years of age and living in the nearby town of Bethlehem, the City of David, just 6 miles away.
HISTORY OF A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS
A Charlie Brown Christmas premiered on CBS TV as a 30-minute animated Christmas special written by Charles M. Schulz, creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip. The comic was hugely popular at the time when the TV special debuted on December 9, 1965.
Though this was not Shulz’ first TV special — that would be 1963’s “A Boy Named Charlie Brown”– nor the last, it would become the most enduring. It is a staple of holiday viewing today, and Christmas is not complete without gathering the family and friends around the TV to watch it.
San Francisco Bay Area musician Vince Guaraldi, known at the time for his instrumental hit “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” provided what was then an unusually melancholy jazz soundtrack along with traditional and classical music for the special. Along with producer Lee Mendelson, it took Schultz a day to outline the story for the sponsor Coca-Cola, weeks to write it, but 6 months to film.
The Twelve Days of Christmas are the dozen days in the liturgical calendar of the Western Church between the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child (Christmas Day, December 25) and the coming of the Wise Men, or Magi, to visit at his house in Bethlehem (Epiphany, January 6). The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates during Epiphany rather than Christmas Day. In Hispanic and Latin American culture, January 6th is observed as Three Kings Day, or simply the “Day of the Kings.”
Aren’t the Twelve Days of Christmas the days before Christmas, when you shop for presents?
Answer: No, the four-week season before Christmas is called Advent, meaning “the coming” of Christ. The dozen days following Christmas are the Twelve Days of Christmas, the last of those is known as Twelfth Night. The Twelfth Night is the holiday which marks the twelfth night of the Christmas Season, the Eve of Epiphany. During the Tudor period in England, the “Lord of Misrule” would run the festivities of Christmas, ending on this Twelfth Night. Shakespeare‘s play by the same name was intended to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment and was first performed during this time in 1602.