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.
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.