Blog Posts

History of the Magi: Who were the Wise Men?

December 14, 2021 /
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Every Christmas season, you hear 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:


  1. We don’t know how many visitors there were
  2. But we know they weren’t kings
  3. They did not originate in the Orient, meaning the Far East

Here’s what we know about these Wise Man.


Home of the Wise Men

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.”


Wise Men In the East?

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…)

History of Santa Lucia: Luciadagen — St. Lucy’s Day

December 13, 2021 /
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Santa Lucia


In Sweden, December 13 is Luciadagen, St. Lucia’s Day, or St. Lucy’s Day in English. 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 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.

Missionaries brought 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.


History of the Poinsettia: The Christmas Flower

December 12, 2021 /
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In the United States, December 12 is National Poinsettia Day.


Poinsettia in Mexico

During college, I studied one summer in Cuernavaca, a little town about an hour and a half south of Mexico City. Nochebuena, the Mexican name of the flower English-speakers call poinsettia, was discovered in Taxco and the valleys surrounding Cuernavaca.

The story is told in Mexico 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.


Poinsett: 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. (more…)

Is Die Hard Really A Christmas Movie?

December 11, 2021 /
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Scholars and historians have debated for centuries the question

“Is Die Hard a Christmas Movie?”

Or at least during the last three decades since the movie was released. This is why readers have turned to me, your friendly neighborhood historian, to wrestle with this age-old question and help them resolve this dilemma.

In this article, I will assemble ancient history, linguistic legerdemain, modern science, and contemporary film criticism to address this question.

The debate has raged amongst the tragically online and is perennially in full bloom during the Christmas season on Twitter. The participants typically fall into two camps, the “Duh!” and the “Nuh-uh.”

I divide this debate thusly:


History of the Christmas Star: Natural or supernatural?

December 10, 2021 /
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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 explanations.

Most, however, take a middle course that looks for some historical rationale 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 accurate 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. (more…)

History of A Charlie Brown Christmas

December 9, 2021 /
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On December 9, 1965, 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.

Though this was not Schulz’s 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 Shultz a day to outline the story for the sponsor Coca-Cola, weeks to write it, but six months to film.

History of the Christmas Tree

December 8, 2021 /
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Christmas Tree

White House Christmas Tree


December 8 is National Christmas Tree Day.

It is generally believed that the first Christmas tree was of German origin dating from the time of St. Boniface, an 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 — with 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.


Middle Ages

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 produce 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.




Riga, Latvia

During Renaissance times, there are records that trees were being used as symbols for Christians first in the Latvian capital of Riga in 1510. One 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 same square myself in the winter, surrounded by snow years ago.


History of the 12 Days of Christmas: They’re after Christmas?

December 7, 2021 /
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The 12 Days of Christmas are the dozen days in the liturgical or ecclesiastical 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 the Western Christmas Day. January 6th is observed as Three Kings Day in Hispanic and Latin American culture, or simply the “Day of the Kings.”


Question: Aren’t the 12 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 12 Days of Christmas; the last is known as Twelfth Night. The Twelfth Night is the holiday that 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 presented as a Twelfth Night entertainment and was first performed during this time in 1602.


History of Santa Claus: Saint or Elf?

December 6, 2021 /
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Santa Claus

St. Nicolas


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.)


Origin of St. Nicholas

He was born in the late 3rd century, perhaps in A.D. 270. Nicholas 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 of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian in A.D. 303 but freed by the 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.


History of Mistletoe: Why is it the Kissing plant?

December 5, 2021 /
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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 with the belief that it would drive off evil spirits and 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.


Etymology of Mistletoe

The word can be traced back to 2nd century Anglo-Saxon “mistel” for the word dung and “tan” for a twig, mistletan being the Old English version of the word. This suggests the belief that mistletoe grew from birds, though we know now that it is the bird’s droppings in trees or the seed’s sticky nature that adheres to tree bark. (more…)

History of the Christmas Creche: Origin of the Manger scene

December 4, 2021 /
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One of the most enduring 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 at a town square, church, or lawn.

Creche in Europe

The word crèche is the French word for a manger.

  • Several years ago, I was in Paris at Notre Dame Cathedral. On display in the cathedral was a large creche that featured a miniature scene of the village of Bethlehem, pictured below. This extended for about 50 feet, much larger than the small display that typically appears on a tabletop or yard.
Notre Dame

Crèche in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

  • The following week I was in Brussels, in the Grand Place town square, where an “actual size” manger display was displayed in the city center in front of the Town Hall.


History of Christmas Music: More than just Carols?

December 3, 2021 /
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Music early became a marked feature of the Christmas season. But the first chants, litanies, and hymns were in Latin and deemed too theological for popular use. Under Francis of Assisi‘s influence 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 familiar or festive style. From Italy, it passed to France and Germany, and later to England, retaining its simplicity, fervor, and mirthfulness. Music has become one of the greatest tributes to Christmas and includes some of the noblest compositions of great musicians. (more…)