History Articles

History of Benjamin Franklin

January 17, 2006 /
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HISTORY OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

As we celebrate the 300th birthday of this great American, we know him as a writer, publisher, merchant, scientist, moral philosopher, and inventor. Musically he invented the glass harmonica, but he also invented the Franklin stove, and started the first lending library and fire brigade in Philadelphia.

He did experiments in electricity and developed the lightning rod.

As one of the earliest and oldest of the Founding Father, he served as lobbyist to England.

He was one of the five drafters of the American Declaration of Independence, along with John Adams and primary drafter Thomas Jefferson. Franklin was 70. At 81 he served as the oldest delegate at the Constitutional Convention, recommending a bi-cameral legislature.

During the Revolutionary War, he served as Minister to France and managed, with his sagacity and salon celebrity, to convince the French King Louis XVI to support the American cause financially and militarily. He dazzled the salon crowd with his notoriety and flirtation, much to John Adam’s chagrin.

He was the most famous private citizen in America and the most celebrated American in Europe.

As a moral philosopher he was a personal mystery. Though he wrote pithy and wise sayings in “Poor Richards’ Almanac” he did not live by all of them himself. He is usually considered a deist, at least in the early part of his life, but he proposed clergy-led prayer each morning during the Constitutional Convention in June of 1787. He said “God governs the affairs of men” yet he also said, “I have some doubts as to [Jesus’] divinity.”

Puritan Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, knew of Franklin’s deist leanings, but wanted, if possible, to pin down the nimble-footed freethinker to some basics. In friendship Stiles asked for some kind of creedal confession, however limited. Franklin, who said that this was the first time he had ever been asked, on March 9, 1790, readily obliged:

“Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the universe: that he governs the world by his providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we can render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal and will be treated with justice in another life respect[ing] its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever sect I meet with them.”

In addition, Stiles wanted to know specifically what Franklin thought of Jesus: Was Franklin really a Christian or not? Franklin responded that Jesus had taught the best system of morals and religion that “the world ever saw.” But on the troublesome question of the divinity of Jesus, he had along with other deists “some doubts.” It was an issue, he said, that he had never carefully studied and, writing only five weeks before his death, he thought it “needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opport[unity] of know[ing]the truth with less trouble.” It would be difficult to burn a heretic like that.

For his own epitaph, Franklin wrote:

“The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer, like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out, stripped of its lettering, and gilding, lies here, food for worms. But the work shall not be lost; for it will, as he believed, appear once more in a new and more elegant edition, revised and corrected by the Author.”

Though on his gravestone appeared only “BENJAMIN And DEBORAH FRANKLIN 1790.” His funeral in Philadelphia attracted the largest crowd of mourners ever known, an estimated 20,000 mourners.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

History of the Twelve Days of Christmas

December 25, 2005 /
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THE HISTORY OF THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS

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, December 25) and the coming of the Magi to visit at his house in Bethlehem (Epiphany, January 6). The Eastern 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.

Question: 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, sometimes 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.

This festival was particularly popular during the Middle Ages especially in England, where some of the traditions were adapted from older pagan customs. Modern Neopaganism celebrates this time. This period is also called Yule or Yuletide, which while it serves as an archaic term for Christmas, harkens back to earlier German and Norse traditions.

Question: But wasn’t this song used as a memory aid for catechism by Catholics in England during the period 1558 until 1829, when Parliament finally emancipated Catholicism there, who were prohibited from ANY practice of their faith by law – private OR public — where each gift is a hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith?

Answer: This is unlikely for several reasons:

At first glance, there is nothing in this song that is uniquely Catholic in belief as compared to Protestant catechism. Any of the items in it could be embraced by Catholic and Protestant alike. While Queen Elizabeth I’s “Act of Uniformity” truly did abolished the “old worship,” and the open practice of Catholicism was forbidden by law until Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, nothing in this song would have been taken as particularly Catholic or offensive to Anglican sensibilities. Indeed, during the highly Puritan time of the Commonwealth between 1649 and 1660 under the Cromwell government, Christmas was not celebrated in England until the time of Charles I and the restoration of the English monarchy.

Secondly, while there are differences between Anglican (Protestant) and Catholic belief, none of those show up in the “hidden meaning” of the song, with the possible exception of the number of sacraments.

However, it may be possible that this song has been confused with another song called “A New Dial” (also known as “In Those Twelve Days”), which dates to at least 1625 and assigns religious meanings to each of the twelve days of Christmas though not for the purposes of teaching a catechism. During those days there was a custom of singing songs called a “memory-and-forfeits performance” in which people added verses to a song cumulatively until the loser of the game forgot the first verses.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
https://www.billpetro.com/

History of Augustus

December 22, 2005 /
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HISTORY OF CAESAR AUGUSTUS

Perhaps it is fitting that our last article on the History behind Christmas should be about the first person mentioned in St. Luke’s story of the first Christmas. He was neither Palestinian, nor Jew, nor shepherd, nor wise man. He was in fact, 1500 miles away, the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. Were it not for his 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). But because of Augustus’ decree Mary and Joseph, descendants of the often married King David, returned to Bethlehem, the city of David. It was here that Mary’s first born child was born, according to Luke, in a manger as there was no room at the inn. Certainly they had not called ahead, and there were a lot of travelers at the time, it being the Christmas season and all.

Some sixty years earlier, the Roman general Pompey had conquered Palestine and was at this time a “client kingdom” ruled by a local king, Herod the Great, who was directly responsible to the Roman emperor. Augustus himself, grand nephew and adopted heir to Julius Caesar, in addition to being emperor was a religious reformer, for he tried to revive the drooping interest in Rome’s state religion. By his day, the average Roman had abandoned his beliefs in the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon and philosophical skepticism was growing, while the more credulous joined the foreign eastern mystery cults. Feeling that this neglect of the gods was demoralizing Roman society, he set about his religious revival with enthusiasm bestowing temples and shrines on the Empire, restoring eighty-two temples in the city of Rome alone. He became “pontifex maximus” (highest priest) in the state cult and tried to spark a moral renewal in society.

Many Roman men and women of the time were indulging in a very easy morality to escape what they called “the tedium of marriage”, and soon marital and birth rates had dwindled alarmingly. One day, August was disturbed enough to stalk into the Forum and devise a crude test of the situation: he told a crowd of men gathered there to separate into two groups, the bachelors on one side, the married men on the other. Seeing the handful of husbands he said:

What shall I call you? Men? But you aren’t fulfilling the duties of men. Citizens? But for all your efforts, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are in the process of blotting out this name altogether! … What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing? … You are committing murder in not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendants!

… and on to other such gems of imperial logic.

Augustus followed this with legislation designed to reverse the tide by making promiscuity a crime, while conferring political advantages on a father of three children. Bachelors who shirked “the duty of marriage” were penalized in their right to inherit, and they could not even secure good seats at the games! Bachelors trying to circumvent such penalties by “marrying” infant girls were quickly countered by setting the minimum age for engagement at ten for girls, with a two-year upper limit for the length of engagement.

Perhaps it was to gauge his success in raising the marriage and birth rates that Augustus was so concerned about the imperial census, for he took several, as in the Christmas story, during his lengthy reign. Such enrollments, of course, were also the basis for the Roman system of taxation, but the Emperor was pleased enough with the results that he proudly mentioned his censuses in eight place among the thirty-five “Acts of Augustus” for which he wished to be remembered, items that were later engraved on two bronze plaques outside his mausoleum. A subscription for the “Acts of Augustus” also appears at the Temple of Augustus in Ankara, Turkey, pictured here.

Some scholars have doubted that imperial Rome would require her subjects to return to their original homes for such enrollments. But this requirement has been supported by the discovery of a Roman census edict from 104 A.D in neighboring Egypt.

“Gaius Vibius Maximus, prefect of Egypt, says: The house-to-house census having been started, it is essential that all persons who for any reason whatsoever are absent from their homes be summoned to return to their own hearths, in order that they may perform the customary business of registration…”

Had Augustus ever seen these three names on the census returns from Bethlehem?

Joseph Ben-Iacob, carpenter
Mary Bath-Ioachim, his wife
Yeshua or Jesus, first-born son

It is very unlikely, and certainly he never learned the significance of what happened in Bethlehem because of his decision to take the census. And at the time of Augustus’ death in 14 A.D. Jesus was about 19 years old, an apprentice carpenter in Nazareth, and the Emperor still could not possibly have heard of him. Augustus would have been astounded to know that later ages would assign his own death to the year 14 A.D. (“in the year of the Lord”) rather than the Roman date, 767 A.U.C. (ab urbe condita, “from the founding of the city”) all because of this unknown subject, born in Bethlehem. And as the years went by this “King of the Jews” would lead a kingdom far more vast than Augustus ever knew.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of the Star

December 20, 2005 /
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christmas starHISTORY OF THE 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 authorities, however, take a middle course which looks for some historical explanation for the Christmas star, and 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 (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, John Williams published his authoritative list of comets derived from Chinese annuals. 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 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.

The astronomer Johannes Kepler noted in the early 17th century that every 805 years, the planets Jupiter and Saturn come into extraordinary repeated conjunction, with Mars joining the configuration a year later. Since Kepler, astronomers have computed that for ten months in 7 B.C., Jupiter and Saturn traveled very close to each other in the night sky, and in May, September, and December of that year, they were conjoined. Mars joined the configuration in February of 6 B.C. The astrological interpretation of such a conjunction would have told the Magi much, if, as seems probable, they shared the astrological lore of the area. Jupiter and Saturn met each other in Pisces, the Fishes.

In ancient astrology, the giant planet Jupiter was styled the “King’s Planet”, for it represented the highest god and ruler of the universe: Marduk to the Babylonians; Zeus to the Greeks; Jupiter to the Romans. The ringed planet Saturn was deemed the shield or defender of Palestine, while the constellation of Pisces, which was also associated with Syria and Palestine, represented epochal events and crises. So Jupiter encountering Saturn in the sign of the Fishes would have meant that a divine and cosmic ruler was to appear in Palestine at a culmination of history.

Meanwhile, new research on the star based on recently available astronomy software and historical research on Josephus’ manuscripts is being conducted and collected at www.bethlehemstar.net.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

Inspired by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

Science of the Solstice

December 19, 2005 /
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SCIENCE OF THE SOLSTICE

As we’ve mentioned before, the Romans celebrated a holiday know as the Saturnalia beginning on the Winter Solstice. The word Solstice comes from the Latin “solstitium” meaning “Sun, standing-still.” This year it will occur on December 21 at 18:35 UT (Greenwich Universal Time.)

Earth enjoys different seasons because the planet is tilted 23 degrees and 27 minutes off the perpendicular to the plane of orbit. This means that the earth revolves like a tilted spinning top. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of sunlight as the Sun is at its lowest arc in the sky, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. The farther north one is from the Equator, the more pronounced this is in Winter. However, as the Earth continues its orbit, the hemisphere that is angled closest to the sun changes, and the seasons are reversed.

In the Northern Hemisphere the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky, and its noontime elevation appears to be the same for several days before and after the solstice, so that it looks like the Sun is “standing still” until following the winter solstice, the days begin to grow longer and the nights shorter.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

History of the Christmas Tree

December 11, 2005 /
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HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE

It is generally believed that the first Christmas tree was of German origin dating from Boniface, English missionary to Germany in the 8th century, who replaced the sacrifices to Odin’s sacred 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. 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.

Accounts persist that Martin Luther introduced the tree lighted with candles. Returning home after a walk one winter night, the story goes, he tried unsuccessfully to describe to his family the beauty of the starry night. He went out and cut down a small fir tree and put lighted candles upon it.

In a manuscript dated 1605 a merchant in Strasbourg, Germany wrote that at Christmas, “they set up fir trees in the parlors in Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of paper of many colors, apples, wafers, spangle-gold and sugar. The custom of decorating the trees may have developed from the medieval Paradise Play. This play was a favorite during the Advent season because it ended with the promise of a Savior. The action in the play centered around a fir tree hung with apples.

In the fifteenth century, trees were decorated with wafers. Later, stars and flowers made from white pastry, and men and animals made from brown pastry, were used.

The earliest date in England for a Christmas Tree was at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor by Queen Charlotte, the German born wife of George III, for a party she held on Christmas Day, 1800, for the children of the leading families in Windsor. Her biographer Dr John Watkins describes the scene:

In the middle of the room stood an immense tub with a yew tree placed in it, from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles. After the company had walked around and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets which it bore together with a toy and then all returned home, quite delighted.

The Christmas Tree was most popularized in England, however, by the German Prince Albert, soon after his marriage to Queen Victoria. In 1841, he began the custom of decorating a large tree in Windsor Castle. In 1848, a print showing the Royal couple with their children was published in the “Illustrated London News.” Albert gave trees to Army barracks and imitation followed. From this time onwards, the popularity of decorated fir trees spread beyond Royal circles and throughout society. Even Charles Dickens referred to the Christmas tree as that ‘new German toy’. German immigrants brought the custom to the United States and tree decorating is recorded back to 1747 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Many individuals and communities vie for the honor of having decorated the first Christmas tree in America. One interesting story tells of Hessian soldiers who fought for George III in the Revolutionary War. As they were keeping Christmas in Trenton, New Jersey around a decorated tree, they left their posts unguarded. George Washington and his troops were hungry and freezing at Valley Forge, but they planned their attack with the knowledge that the Hessians would be celebrating and thus would not be as able to defend themselves.

Christmas trees really became popular in the United States following the invention of the electric light. In 1895, President Grover Cleveland decorated the tree at the White House with electric Lights. This idea caught on and spread across the country.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

History of a Sacred Oratorio

December 7, 2005 /
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Sacred Oratorio

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, pre-1808

HISTORY OF A SACRED ORATORIO

The genteel reception accorded the original debut performance stood in marked contrast to the savage hostility which greeted the work less than a year later in the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, London. The English aristocracy and churchmen began an unrelenting campaign against the work and its creator. They labeled it “a profanation,” scandalized at

“the sacrilege of converting the Life and Passion of Christ into a theatrical entertainment.”

Some clergymen objected so strongly to the idea of printing the actual title on the program that the author was obliged to announce his great work as “A Sacred Oratorio.”

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History of the Poinsettia

December 6, 2005 /
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HISTORY OF THE POINSETTIA

Some thirty years ago, I studied one summer in Cuernavaca, a little town south of Mexico City. There is a story told there 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, which the Mexicans call the “Flor de la Noche Buena,” the Flower of the Holy Night.

These striking blooms caught the attention of Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, America’s first ambassador to Mexico. Dr. Poinsett brought the plant to America and raised it in his greenhouses in Charleston, South Carolina. It was named in his honor in 1836.

There are also white, pink and dappled poinsettias. By the early 1900’s, they were sold as potted plants in California. Many poinsettias are still raised in the state, especially for use as Christmas gifts and decorations. The city of Ventura, California is even known as the Poinsettia City.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of the Creche

December 5, 2005 /
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HISTORY OF THE CRECHE

One of the most beautiful Christmas traditions is setting up a creche during the Advent season. A creche is a model of the scene at the manger on the first Christmas in the stable 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 creche is from the French word for manger. The French word comes from the Italian word Greccio. Greccio was the town where the first manger scene was set up by St. Francis of Assisi, in 1223. Before that time, many churches had built mangers, but these early mangers were covered with gold, silver, and jewels. They were much fancier than the original manger in which the Christ child was laid.

St. Francis wanted people to remember that Jesus was born in a humble stable. He asked a farmer friend of his to help by bringing an ox, a donkey, a manger and some straw to a nearby cave. On Christmas Eve, St. Francis and the people of Greccio met in this cave. By candlelight, they acted out the story of Jesus’ birth.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of Christmas: Traditions

December 4, 2005 /
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TRADITIONS

Many of the customs that we associate with Christmas come from largely pagan or pre-Christian backgrounds. The word ‘Yule’ comes from an old Norse word for a twelve-day celebration. Mistletoe was prominent in the traditions of the Druids and the lore of northern Europe. The wassail bowl was first known in Scandinavia. 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’. Incidentally, the "X" in ‘Xmas’ is not an abbreviation for ‘cross’. It represents "chi" (which looks like our ‘x’), the first letter in the Greek word "christos", which like the Hebrew word "messiah" means "the anointed one".

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of Christmas: King Herod

December 1, 2005 /
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herod the great

Herod the Great

HISTORY OF KING HEROD: WHY WAS HE CALLED GREAT

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. During the century around Jesus’ birth, there had been hints.

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History of the Wise Men: the Magi

November 30, 2005 /
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THE WISE MEN

You’re familiar with the song that begins “We Three Kings of Orient Are…” but it is inaccurate in at least three ways. We don’t know how many there were, but we know they weren’t kings. They did not originate in the Orient, meaning the Far East.

How could they have seen the star “in the East” and arrived in Jerusalem unless they began somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, as it says in the Gospel of Matthew 2:2 “We saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him”. One easy 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”.

A number of tradition places their number at three, with the presumption 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.

The term “magi” is usually translated wise men, astrologers, or magicians (the word “magic” comes from magi). “The East”, has been variously identified as any country from Arabia to Media and Persia, but usually no further east.

What we know about their origin suggests to Mesopotamian or Persian origins for the magi, who were known to be an old and powerful priestly caste among both the Medes and Persians. These priest-sages who were extremely well educated for their day, were specialists in a variety of disciplines, including medicine, religion, astronomy, astrology, divination, and magic, and their caste eventually spread across much of the East. As in any profession, there were both good and bad magi, depending on whether they did research in the sciences or practiced augury, necromancy, and magic. The Persian magi at least were credited with higher religious and intellectual attainments, while the Babylonian magi were sometimes deemed impostors. The safest conclusion is that the Magi of Christmas were Persian, for the term originated among the Medo-Persians, and early Syriac traditions give them Persian names.

Primitive Christian art in the second-century Roman Catacombs of Pricilla, which I have visited, dresses them in Persian garments, and a majority of early church fathers interpret them as Persians.

The Church of the Nativity was built in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine’s mother upon the traditional site in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, and indeed it is the only major church in the Holy Land that survives intact from the early Christian period. In 614, the church had a narrow escape. A Sassanian army from Persia had invaded the Holy Land and proceeded to destroy all the churches. However, they desisted at Bethlehem because they recognized the images of their ancestors, the Magi, above the entrance to the Church of the Nativity in Persian headdress. This account makes sense by virtue of the fact that the Magi were traditionally represented in early Christian art as Zoroastrian priests

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

Inspired by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time