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.
December 6 is “Saint Nicholas Day.” The name Santa Claus is a kind of a contraction for Saint Nicholas, the German name Sankt Nikolaus can be pronounced San’t(a) ni-KLOuse (sounding like house.)
He was born in the 3rd century, perhaps in A.D. 270. He became a bishop in Greece and gained distinction in the councils of the church. He was especially famed for unexpected gifts and later associated with the giving of presents during the season at the end of the year.
“I am Nicholas, a sinner, Nicholas, servant of Christ Jesus.”
the old saint would say. He was imprisoned during the great persecutions under the Roman Emperor Diocletian in A.D. 303 but freed by decree of Emperor Constantine. After that, he served as Bishop in Myra for another thirty years. Nicholas participated in the famous ecumenical church Council of Nicaea in 325. He died on December 6, about 343, and the Feast of St. Nicholas is now held on that day.
Many stories are told of his kindness, such as the story of the poor man and his three daughters. To save the girls from being sold into prostitution for want of dowries, St. Nicholas dropped a bag full of gold down the man’s chimney. It landed in one of the stockings the eldest daughter had hung up to dry. Now she could be married. The other two daughters quickly hung up stockings for St. Nicholas to fill with gold, so that they, too, could soon be married. By the way, the three golden globes of the pawn shop are attributed to this story.
HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE
It is generally believed that the first Christmas tree was of German origin dating from the time of St. Boniface, English missionary to Germany in the 8th century. He replaced the sacrifices to the Norse god Odin’s sacred oak — some say it was Thor‘s Thunder Oak — by a fir tree adorned in tribute to the Christ child. The legend is told that Boniface found a group of “pagans” preparing to sacrifice a boy near an oak tree near Lower Hesse, Germany. He cut down the oak tree with a single stroke of his ax and stopped the sacrifice. A small fir tree sprang up in place of the oak. He told the pagans that this was the “tree of life” and stood for Christ.
A legend began to circulate in the early Middle Ages that when Jesus was born in the dead of winter, all the trees throughout the world shook off their ice and snow to produced new shoots of green. The medieval Church would decorate outdoor fir trees, known as “paradise trees,” with apples on Christmas Eve. They called it “Adam and Eve Day” and celebrated with a play.
During Renaissance times there are records that trees were being used as symbols for Christians first in the Latvian capital of Riga in 1510. The story goes that it was attended by men wearing black hats in front of the House of Blackheads in the Town Hall Square, who following a ceremony burnt the tree. But whether it was for Christmas or Ash Wednesday is still debated. I’ve stood in that very square myself in the Winter, surrounded by snow.
One of the most beautiful Christmas traditions is setting up a creche during the Advent season. A creche is a model of the scene of the manger on the first Christmas at Bethlehem. A creche can be a small model, set up in the home or a large scene set up at a church or lawn.
The word crèche is the French word for a manger. Several years ago I was in Paris at Notre Dame. On display in the cathedral was a large creche that features a miniature scene of the village of Bethlehem, pictured below. This extends for about 50 feet, much larger than the small display that typically appears on a tabletop or yard. In Brussels, in the Grand Place, an “actual size” manger display was on display in the city center in front of the Town Hall.
Many of the customs that we commonly associate with Christmas come from previous pagan or pre-Christian European backgrounds.
- The word Yule comes from an Old Norse word for a twelve-day celebration among Germanic people. It later became known as Christmastide.
- Mistletoe was prominent in the traditions of the Druids and the lore of northern Europe. The plant had no roots, yet remained green. The Norse associated it with their goddess of love Frigga, perhaps the origin of kissing under it, as we’ll discuss in a later article.
- The wassail bowl was first known in Scandinavia as the Old Norse ves heil. We are familiar with it by the more modern Anglo-Saxon “toast” wassail which means “be thou hale” or healthy and is traditionally celebrated on Twelfth Night.
- Holly was used for decoration in the twelve-day Roman holiday known as the Saturnalia, which was followed by twelve holy days ending on January 1, and is where we get the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”
To what extent Saturnalia traditions influenced Christmas or the reverse, is debated by scholars. While we hear of Saturnalia from Catullus in the 1st century B.C., the full descriptions of its traditions we learn from Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, who lived in the early fifth century A.D., long after Christmas had been widely observed.
HISTORY OF CHANUKAH
Today at sundown, December 12th begins Chanukah. It is also spelled Hanukkah, meaning “dedication.” This Jewish holiday traces its roots back more than 2,000 years.
At that time the Jewish people were living under the oppressive government of the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV, (a rather ironic name — Epiphanes means “God made manifest”) who was a descendant of Seleucus, the general of Alexander the Great. During Antiochus’ rule, he forbade the reading of the Scriptures, circumcision, Sabbath observance, and a number of other religious practices. To further promote the “Hellenization” of Palestine, conforming it to Greek culture, he set up in the Temple of Jerusalem an altar dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter where swine were offered in sacrifice. This “Abomination of Desolation” caused the Jews to rebel in what became known as the Maccabean Revolt, and under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus “the Hammer” the Syrians were overthrown, and the Temple had all signs of paganism removed. The statue to Jupiter was ground to dust. A feast was instituted on 25 Kislew, 165 B.C. for the purification of the Temple. The story goes that light of the Temple was relit with only enough pure oil to last one day, but miraculously lasted for eight days, until more could be found. The Festival of Lights is celebrated for eight days.
Music early became a marked feature of the Christmas season. But the first chants, litanies, and hymns were in Latin and too theological for popular use. Under the influence of Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, we began to see the rise of the carol written in the vernacular. The word carol comes from the Greek word choraulein. A choraulein was an ancient circle dance performed to flute music. In the Middle Ages, the English combined circle dances with singing and called them carols. Later, the word carol came to mean a song in which a religious topic is treated in a style that is familiar or festive. From Italy, it passed to France and Germany, and later to England, retaining its simplicity, fervor, and mirthfulness. Music in itself has become one of the greatest tributes to Christmas and includes some of the noblest compositions of great musicians.