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 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.
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…)
I’m often asked to explain the history behind a holiday or the origin of a popular tradition. Is it based on history, tradition, or legend? The best historical sources we have on the birth of Jesus are found in two of the Gospel accounts in the New Testament. Matthew was a companion of Jesus during his ministry. Luke was not. Instead, he was a companion of Paul during his journeys. Still, Luke shows a detailed knowledge of primary sources, appearing to have spoken directly to Jesus’ mother Mary, perhaps during his travels while she was living in Ephesus with the Apostle John. Luke’s account contains much more detail and is four times longer than Matthew’s. Below are 5 Myths frequently associated with our celebration of Christmas, which are not actually found in the Nativity story. Here’s a fresh look at what the sources say. (more…)
The Twelve 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. 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 presented as a Twelfth Night entertainment and was first performed during this time in 1602.
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 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. 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 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.
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’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 Schultz a day to outline the story for the sponsor Coca-Cola, weeks to write it, but 6 months to film.