Stars and Wise Men
The Star of Bethlehem, often found at the top of a Christmas tree or on a plate of Christmas cookies, is strictly Christian in origin, from the Gospel of Matthew. The nature of the star mentioned in the gospel remains a mystery; however, the science of astronomy has provided some possible explanations for accounts of a magical star at the time of Jesus’ birth.
Some have argued that it must have been a comet, but records of that time mark the only comets near this period at 17 B.C. (too early), and A.D. 66 (too late). Chinese astronomers, the best in history, observed a nova in 4 B.C., but there is no way to know whether this is the star mentioned in the story.
Another explanation comes from the fields of astronomy and astrology. In the year 6 or 7 B.C., there was an alignment of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces, a fact confirmed by the School of Astronomy at Sippar in Babylon and by the world-renowned astronomer Johannes Kepler. Ancient astrological legend, moreover, asserts that the meeting of the planets would signify the Messiah’s birth. The sign for Pisces is two fish joined by their tails; this is also the sign of the Messiah. However, it’s possible that 6-7 B.C. is too early to be the year of Jesus’ birth.
Careful reading of Matthew shows that it gives no specific number for the Wise Men who were following the star and never refers to them as kings. Over the years, popular culture settled on the number three, presumably because of the three gifts that Matthew mentions; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Their status as kings is believed to come from a passage in Psalms that refers to kings bearing gifts, though they are also referred to as Magi.
The first Nativity scene was created at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in tenth-century Rome. The custom was soon popular at other churches, each one constructing ornate mangers with gold, silver, jewels, and precious stones. Though popular among high society, such opulence was far removed from the original circumstances of Christ’s birth, as well as being inaccessible to the poorer masses.
The more accurate crèche scene is due to St. Francis of Assisi, who in 1224 sought to remedy these problems with creating the first manger scene that was true to the Biblical account of Christ’s birth.
Called a crèche, the scene that St. Francis set up for the village of Greccio was made up of hay, carved figures, and live animals, capturing for the town’s unlettered people more of the spirit and the story of Christ’s birth than any splendid art treasure could convey.
The popularity of St. Francis’ crèche spread throughout the world. In Italy it is called a presepio; and in Germany, a Krippe. It is a nacimiento in Spain and Latin America, and called a jeslicky in the Czech Republic, a presebre in Brazil, and a portal and in Costa Rica.
In the time of darkness surrounding the winter solstice, candles were important as a source of light and heat. During the Saturnalia, Romans lit candles to convince the sun to shine again and to ward off evil. From this pagan start, the candle has gone on to become an essential part of Christmas lighting, both in church ceremonies and at home.
For Christians it symbolizes Christ himself, the light of the world; candles are used during Advent to mark the days before the coming of Christmas. The Candlemas services that celebrate the purification of Mary forty days after Christ’s birth take their name from the candles that are blessed during the ceremony.
In Victorian times, candles came to represent concern and goodwill for the poor and unfortunate during the holiday season. Candles were placed in windows during the twelve days of Christmas as a sign to needy passersby that shelter and warmth could be found within.
The first string of electric Christmas-tree lights was not sold until 1903. Only the wealthy could afford them however, and only those with indoor electric outlets could use them. Most people continued to follow the earlier (and dangerous) tradition of affixing small lighted candles to the boughs of the tree. Larger trees bore hundreds of candles.
The idea of hanging stocking out on Christmas Eve is believed to have come from Amsterdam, where children leave out their shoes on St. Nicholas’ Eve in hopes that he will fill them with goodies. But where did the people of Amsterdam get the idea? Perhaps from St. Nicholas himself.
One of the most popular stories surrounding the saint concerns his generosity to the three daughters of a poor family. It seems the daughters were of marriageable age, but could not marry because they had no dowry. Nicholas heard of their plight and set out to help them. In the middle of the night (he wanted his act to be a secret), Nicholas threw bags of gold coins down the girl’s chimney. The bags landed in the girl’s stockings, which they had hung up by the chimney to dry.
Pagan people long revered evergreens for their ability to stay alive during the cold and dark winters. Often considered magical for this reason, greenery in various forms adorned the inside and outside of houses during the winter solstice festivals.
Church officials at first attempted to banish greenery, then decided it would better serve their purpose to translate the beloved custom into Christian terms. Evergreens came to symbolize Christ, who in His triumph over death gave the gift of everlasting life to the world.
The legend of the Christmas Rose tells of a young girl who wanted to worship the baby Jesus, but felt she could not because she had no present. Saddened, the girl began to cry; as her tears fell to the ground, they created a bush bearing a beautiful white rose, which she gave to the Holy infant.
Greenery generally refers to those trees and plants that remain green and flourishing all year round. Though cypress, box, yew, rosemary, and laurel are all considered greenery, they are not as common to Christmas as holly, ivy, mistletoe, and of course, the Christmas tree.
(Jeffrey, Yvonne, The Everything Family Christmas Book)