Thanks to comments from readers Susanne and Shafiq, I have decided to add a Part III to “Part I Cultural Traditions” and “Part II Interfaith Christmases” of my post “Cross Cultural Christmases: Saudi, Muslim, Arab, and Non”. Their comments on Part II, from both a Christian and a Muslim perspective, made me realize that I had somewhat neglected the Christianity of Christmas. As the Good Microsoft Office Word Jinn gifted me with backup copies of the files the Bad Acer Computer Jinn so gluttonously ate previously, I took it as a sign of confirmation that this Part III should “come to pass”.
The Birth of Jesus
The Birth of Jesus* is the preliminary and essential element of the New Testament. This testament, or bearing witness, is necessary to tell the story of God on Earth, or God made Man. It is “new” in its revelation of a God of Love and Mercy, in contrast to the Old Testament which bears witness more to the authoritarian God of creation, law, and judgment. In another reading, the Old Testament is a long preparation for the New Testament, a long series of predictions of the coming of a Saviour, the Messiah (the Anointed one, the King). Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of these prophesies that a great King of the House of David would come to save mankind. Jews believe that Jesus was a prominent rabbi (religious teacher) and maybe even a prophet, but definitely not the announced Messiah. They are still waiting for the first coming of the Messiah while Christians are waiting for the Second Coming of their Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Saints Mathew, Mark, Luke and John
The Birth of Jesus is also the raison d’être for the celebration of Christmas or Christ’s Mass, as a Christian religious festival superimposed on pre-Christian Winter Solstice celebrations. Each of the 4 Gospels (Injil)--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John-- which open the New Testament, opens in turn with the story of the Nativity (or in the Gospel according to Mark, the early life of Jesus), and each one is slightly different, reflecting the circumstances and timing of their writing, the vagaries of oral history, the historico-political contexts of their original audiences, and the message the specific apostle/saint wanted to convey.
Matthew I: 1-17 recounts the lineage of Jesus establishing his bona fides as a Son of the House of David, from Abraham forward to Joseph, his earthly father. Interestingly, this detailed genealogy (the “begats”) is strictly patrilineal, beginning: “I 1: The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham”; and ending, “16: And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. 17: So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.”
Verses 18-25 describe Jesus’ paternity both divine and social, making clear that He was conceived by an immaculate conception with the Holy Ghost, and that Mary was and remained a virgin, although in an, as yet, unconsummated marriage to Joseph, and pregnant with Jesus. The “angel of the Lord” advised Joseph, who began to live with his wife Mary, but platonically and as her protector. Chapter 2 of Matthew recounts the politico-historical context of the time, when King Herod was searching to kill the newborn King of the Jews, tried to use the 3 wise men to find and kill him, but was thwarted by their recognition of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, their warning, and Joseph fleeing to Egypt. Angry, King Herod ordered all Jewish newborn boys killed. Later, after the death of Herod, Joseph returned with his family to Nazareth, and Jesus became know as Jesus the Nazarene.
The Gospel According to Mark takes up the story of Jesus’ ministry as a rabbi (religious teacher), beginning “1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; 2 As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. 3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” It recounts Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, his wandering in the wilderness for 40 days, and his return to take up John’s ministry after the latter’s imprisonment (by the Romans at the request of the other Jewish sects).
As indicated by its opening verses, the Gospel of Luke is a later recounting of the life of Jesus, to set the story straight among the differing versions to that date. Like the Quranic Surah Maryam, Luke begins with the plea of the elderly Zachariah, and his previously barren wife Elizabeth, for a child. 6 months after John was conceived, the Angel Gabriel visited Mary, a virgin betrothed to, but not yet living with, Joseph. Of the Gospels, Luke is most emphatic about the miracle of the 2 births, the special nature of John and Jesus, even as fetuses in utero, and the special bond between Elizabeth and Mary:
39 And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; 40 And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. 41 And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: 42 And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. 43 And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. 45 And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.
Luke I insists on the divine nature of both John and Jesus, and their place as sons of Israel, descendants of Abraham through the house of David, with a mission to save their people bodily from their earthly enemies, the Egyptians, and spiritually from sin. Yet Jesus, not John, is the Son of God who will dwell in the desert until returning to Israel to take up his mission.
Luke II contains the Nativity story that is so recognizable in religious tableaux and carols, and in Christmas icons, including the crèches or manger scenes:
1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
The Adoration of the Shepherds for the infant Jesus
15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
Jesus Yeshua ישוע
21 And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. 22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; 23 (As it is written in the law of the LORD, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) 24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons."
The rest of Luke II segues into the recognition of Jesus as a divine messenger, the marks of his exceptionality as a child, and the lead up to his adult ministry.
St John the Baptist
The Gospel according to John returns to the beginning of all creation:
I 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
It then introduces John the Baptist as the messenger of the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. This final Gospel emphasizes John the Baptist’s role as bearing witness to Jesus as the son of God, as God made flesh, as God in human form, and simultaneously anchors Jesus as the Prophet and Messiah predicted in the Old Testament. In this Gospel, many of the later metaphors to describe Christ are employed, the Son of God, but also the Word, the Light, the Rabbi (Master teacher), the King of Israel. Much of the Christmas celebration borrows directly from these 4 Gospels, the imagery of stars, lights, crowns, words (carols); the heralding of the birth of the Son of God, the King of Israel; and the Nativity scenes in the manger, with the Shepherds, and the 3 Wise Men or 3 Kings of the Orient bearing gifts fit for a King of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Gold, Frankincense, and Myrhh, the gifts of the 3 Wise Men
* The Biblical quotations in this section are from the King James Version of the Bible (1611) as that is the version that has had the greatest impact on English literature and culture, including the religious words about Christmas in prayers and carols. Those who prefer different or more contemporary English or other language versions (including Arabic) may wish to read from this online source.
The Christmas Season in the Christian (Liturgical) Calendar
If one looks at a Christian Calendar marking the days of various religious events to be celebrated in the Church, also called a liturgical calendar and followed by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans, for the months of late November, December, and early January, one notices the religious correspondents to the Nativity narrative in 3 time periods: Advent, Christmastide, and then Epiphany. Each period originally incorporated pre-Christian elements, and now also has new secular aspects.
Advent is the season before Christmas Day that announces and prepares for the coming of the birth of Christ. Part of that preparation is penitence for the sins of the past year as Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, which starts on the 4th Sunday before Christmas Day (which depending on the year may fall on any day of the week). It may start at the very end of November or the first couple of days of December. Each of the 4 Sundays before Christmas is an Advent Sunday. Each is marked with a service that includes prayers and sermons preparing for the Second Coming of Christ (after the End of Days) while remembering the First Coming of Christ 2000 years ago, and leading up to that year’s Christmas Day.
One of purple, mauve, or blue, the colours of mourning and penitence, is the colour used in the Church and worn by the priest to mark the Sundays of Advent, except the 3rd one, Gaudete Sunday (Rejoicing Sunday), which is pink in commemoration of passing the half way point and now approaching more imminently the birth of Jesus. In religious homes, where the family are members of the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Anglican faiths, they may have an advent wreath or candelabra with 3 purple and one pink candle, and will light the appropriate numbers and colours of candles on the corresponding Advent Sunday. Some may have an Advent candle, a section of which is burned daily for the month. Following a German tradition, many have a Advent Calendar to mark each day of the month, with little windows which one opens each day to find a saying and a small gift or chocolate. Many of these are extremely beautiful, some are traditional, and some are very contemporary variants, for example a Barbie Advent Calendar for little girls.
A vintage Advent Calendar from Germany where the custom started, new and closed, with the numbers marking the "windows" to open daily (starting with the pennant on the turret)
Besides the Sundays of Advent, specific days have meaning. December 6 is the Feast of St Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. A saint with many miracles to his name, and with a custom of providing secret gifts to those who left their shoes out for him, St Nicholas is the protector of children and the gift-bearer for those who celebrate his feast day as a prelude to the Christmas season. He is the historical antecedent for SinterKlaas (Dutch) which became the Santa Claus of contemporary North America.
St Nicholas of Myra
December 8 is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Ste Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, as Mary was herself conceived immaculately. She was born September 8. The Immaculate Conception by Mary of Jesus is celebrated 9 months before Christmas, as the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, on March 25. Christians themselves often confuse these 2 celebrations of the immaculate conceptions--by Ste Anne of Mary, and by Mary of Jesus.
Ste Anne, Mother of Mary
Christmastide (The 12 Days of Christmas/Yuletide)
The 12 Days of Christmas, or Christmastide/Yuletide, made famous by the popular and secular Christmas song about gift giving, begin on about December 24, Christmas Eve, and end on January 5th particularly in the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of England marks Christmastide as a 40 day period, from Christmas Eve to Candlemas in early February, the day that marks the presentation of the 40 day old infant Jesus at the Temple for a blessing and Mary’s purification. Another English tradition makes Candlemas, early in February, the end of the period of seasonal inversion beginning on All Hallows Eve, Hallowe’en.
Christmastide begins on December 24th, or Christmas Eve, with a feast, and a special Church service, as well as gifts in some cultures, amd continues with festivities throughout the 12 days, some more formal than others. December 25th is of course a major day both religiously and culturally, with church services, feasting, gifts, and family visits. December 26 (and often extended to December 27) is the Feast of St Stephen, or Boxing Day, a day to remember the poor, and servants, or service people with presents, much as Good King Wenceslas of the eponymous carol, “went out on the Feast of Stephen” with his page, to distribute gifts to the poor, including “yonder peasant”.
December 28 is Childermas--the Feast of the Innocents, a day to commemorate those infants ordered killed by King Herod, in his rage and fear of the Christ child, as recounted in Matthew 2:16-18. While there is little evidence historically that Herod ordered a particular killing at this time, it was recorded, by the famous contemporary Jewish historian Josephus, that Herod had had his own sons killed, and had ordered other massacres to maintain his rule. Matthew puts this in the theological context of the birth of the Christ Child as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies, with Roman oppression an echo of that by the Egyptian Pharaoh.
January 1 is the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord, when Jesus was circumcised in keeping with Jewish tradition on the 8th day after his birth. It is still celebrated in the Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine Rite (Eastern Europe, MENA, India, Eritrea, and their diasporas), and the Eastern Orthodox Churches (Eastern Europe including Russia). In the Roman Catholic tradition it is combined with the Octave (8 days) of the Nativity, honouring Mother Mary. Since the adoption of the Vatican II recommendations in 1962, only the Octave of the Nativity is officially recognized.
During the whole period of Christmastide, wassailing (drinking cider punch from a Wassail bowl--more typical in England), caroling, hanging stockings to receive gifts, exchanging cards and greetings, burning a Yule log, decorating with evergreens, holly, ivy, Christmas trees, and mistletoe, and special food treats (nuts, candy, oranges) are all part of the festivities. It is also common during this whole time to attend Christmas pantomimes, seasonal offerings like the Nutcracker Ballet, the latest Christmas films, to visit family and friends, to travel to the homes of extended family members, and to play with the new Christmas toys (both child and adult).
Twelfth Night, or Epiphany Eve, on January 5th is the close of Christmastide, and was often celebrated in England as a “little Christmas”. It still has greater significance in majority Catholic countries, where it is the occasion of distinct festivities, than in Protestant ones. It is a time of role inversions much like Carnival, where masters and servants trade places, and gender inversions including cross dressing, as well as human to animal costumes are part of the fun. These highly codified transgressions of societal norms are part of the Carnivalesque, which occurs in spring as well; and, while seeming to threaten the social order, they are, in fact, a safety valve to vent frustrations in an orderly manner, and preserve the status quo.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will
Shakespeare’s famous comedy, Twelfth Night, or What You Will, which first opened January 5, 1601, was written specifically as an Epiphany Eve entertainment to close the Christmas season, and contains master servant role inversions, gender cross dressing, identity switches, and a court jester or Fool. The general ambiance of the play is merry, and self-indulgent in drink, food, dance, romance, and trickery.
Epiphany itself is a religious day of rejoicing in celebration of the Appearance or Manifestation of Jesus Christ the Saviour. In the Eastern Churches (the Christian churches that predominate in the Balkans, Eastern Europe (including Russia), Asia Minor, Northeastern Africa, and Southern India) this manifestation is of the divinity of Jesus. For this reason the day is also called Theophany (the Appearance of God to Man), and is the 3rd most important feast of the year (after Easter, and Pentecost). In the Western Churches (the Christian churches that predominate elsewhere), the Epiphany is the manifestation, or showing, of Jesus to the 3 Wise Men, Magi, Kings, of the Orient who followed the Star of Bethlehem to the manger and presented the Christ child with their gifts, then spread the glad tidings of the birth of the Messiah. Thus, the celebrations in the East and West are somewhat different, with the East celebrating the Birth of Jesus on January 6, and the Adoration of the Kings simultaneously or shortly thereafter, while the West celebrates only the Manifestation of Jesus to the 3 Magi--Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar--on that day.
So powerful are this event and its meanings that the 3 Wise Men, the Gifts of the Magi, and the Adoration of the Three Kings, are icons of Western art, much like the Nativity scene itself, where they are often included, but from which they also feature separately:
Gaudi’s 3 Wise Men, la Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Catalunya, Spain
The Arabian Dance sequence of Tchaikovsky’s Christmas entertainment The Nutcracker Suite is partially inspired by this element of the Christmas pageant:
The Royal Ballet’s classical version, London
Maurice Béjart’s contemporary version, Lausanne, Switzerland
I dare say singing the classic carol “We Three Kings” is the first “contact” for many Western children with the East, and that most have no idea what a “traverse afar” is. How many of us knew the 3 gifts--gold, frankincense and myrrh--and yet had no inkling what the last 2 were, or that they existed independent of the Nativity story, and continue to exist?
Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing, with splendid art images of the 3 Kings throughout the video
The story of the 3 Kings of the Orient seeing the Star of Bethlehem, and following it, has even featured in political art:
Traditional celebrations of Epiphany have variants throughout the Christian world, but 4 themes seem to recur: the Blessing of the Waters, marking the return of safe seafaring conditions in certain parts of the world (eg Greece); baptism of recently born infants; and religious pageants imitating the Adoration of the Kings; and feasting including Kings’ Cakes.
Kings’ Cakes, gâteaux des rois, galettes des rois, Roscón de Reyes, or other similar names, are specially baked cakes with a bean inside.
Traditionally the cake is cut into the same number of portions as the guests, and one extra which is the piece for God. The person drawing the piece with the bean in it is the king of the festivities and wears a paper crown.
The bean may be a real one, a porcelain one, or any porcelain figurine, some very beautiful and kept in the family for years. Some cakes have a second “bean” or figurine for drawing the queen of the festivities, and a second crown--or in a large gathering a second cake is the queen’s cake. January 6 is the day for the Kings Cake but they now feature, at least in France through the month of January.
Epiphany concludes the Christmas season for many. For some Christmas continues to February 2, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, which commemorates Jesus’ introduction as a young boy to the Jewish temple, or synagogue. This explains why some Epiphany traditions like Kings’ Cakes continue to be a part of festivities throughout the month of January, and in France Christmas cards can be sent during February.
Today, December 31, is the Feast of St Sylvester, more commonly known as New Year’s Eve, as it is the last day in the Gregorian, and the liturgical, calendars. Pope Sylvester I (Pope from January 31, 314 to December 31, 335) was later canonized, his sainthood based on the longevity and socio-political importance of this reign, aligning Christendom with the Roman Emperor (then Emperor Constantine), and laying the foundation for the dominance through the Middle Ages of the Holy Roman Empire and, for many more centuries, of the prominence of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope in historico-political events. While Pope Sylvester I didn’t attend the First Council of Nicaea in 325, he did send 2 delegates, and did sign the agreements made.
This oft-mentioned First Council of Nicaea--convened by Emperor Constantine I at the request of the Church over its concern about heretical teachings, and held in Nicaea (now known as Iznik, in modern day Turkey) for its centrality within the Empire and the Church empire--was only the second general council meeting of the Church, the first being the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem (50 CE) which established the criteria by which Gentiles might join the Jewish followers of Jesus Christ. The First Council of Nicaea grappled instead with doctrinal matters within the Church and was attend by Bishops from throughout the Roman Empire, except for Britain. These Bishops became know as the Patriarchy.
Culturally, Pope Sylvester’s reign had an immense and lasting impact as well. During this time many of the great and historic churches of Rome were founded and built by Emperor Constantine with whom he collaborated:
Basilica of St John Lateran, Rome
Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome
St Peter's Basilica, Rome
December 31, as the Feast of St Sylvester, marks the day of Pope Sylvester I’s burial in the Catacombs of Priscilla, in Rome.
The earliest known image of Mary and Jesus (nursing), 2nd century CE in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome
However, most of us recognize December 31 for its secular celebration of the end of the previous year, and the “ringing in” of the new one. Dancing, feasting, noisemakers, and alcoholic libations are the hallmarks of this evening/night celebration. More sedate daytime activities include personal reflections on the year that was, self-assessment, private journal entries, and changing agendas and calendars over in anticipation of the New Year.
In the spirit of the 31st, I would like to wish you all
A Happy (and Safe) New Year’s Eve!