The History of Christmas

This PragerU video on The Amazing History of Christmas was the spark to this week’s study session.

In this session we’ll review a few of the prominent traditions celebrated around the world at this time and explore in depth the hidden mysteries of Christ’s birthday from an astrological and geological perspective.

How much do you know about Christmas—about its origins and its many beloved traditions? Do you know where the idea of stocking-stuffers comes from? Or how lights found their way onto the Christmas tree? Or why we all have the jolly, red-suited, white-haired image of Santa Claus in our heads? In this video, historian William Federer explores the holiday’s rich and unique history.

Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, Santa Claus

In the PragerU video it talked about St. Nicholas who is also known as Santa Claus. Yes, it is true that Santa Claus is for real. It’s not a myth and not a heresy to let children know about the good works of this saintly fellow. Santa Claus lived the faith as described in Matt 5:16.

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 5:16

The real history behind this Bishop of Myra can best be found at

One interesting tidbit from this history is that St. Nicholas was present during the council that met in Nicaea in the year of our Lord 325.

Fresco in Capella Sistina, Vatican

An official portrait of Saint Nicholas can be found here

Saint Nicholas

There’s even a space on the site for kids.

Away in a Manger

As the Christmas Carol goes “Away in a manger no crib for His bed.” But what do we really know about the little manger scene and could this have even been accurate given the place of His birth in Bethlehem?

Two mystics of the Church include Blessed Catherine Anne Emerich and Mary of Agreda. Both of these mystics were provided visions of the venture that Mary and Joseph had as they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem on that first Christmas.

Let us read from Book Iv of Chapter IX in the City of God

Thus variously and wonderfully assisted, our Travelers arrived at the town of Bethlehem at four o’clock on the fifth day, a Saturday.- While wandering through the streets they passed the office of the public registry and there inscribed their names and paid the fiscal tribute in order to comply with the edict and not be obliged to return. They continued their search, betaking themselves to other houses. But having already applied at more than fifty different places, they found themselves rejected and sent away from them all.

It was nine o’clock at night, when the most faithful Joseph, full of bitter and heartrending sorrow, returned to his most prudent Spouse and said: “My sweetest Lady, no doubt heaven, in thus allowing the hearts of men to be so unmoved as to refuse us a night-lodging, conceals some mystery.

I now remember, Lady, that outside the city walls there is a cave, which serves as a shelter for shepherds and their flocks. Let us seek it out; perhaps it is unoccupied, and we may there expect some assistance from heaven, since we receive none from men on earth.” The most prudent Virgin answered: “My spouse and my master, let not thy kindest heart be afflicted, because the ardent wishes which the love of thy Lord excites in thee, cannot be fulfilled. Let us go gladly wherever the Lord shall guide us.” The holy angels accompanied the heavenly pair, brilliantly lighting up the way, and when they arrived at the city gate, they saw that the cave was forsaken and unoccupied.

The City of God, Book 4, Chapter 9

The cave was more in the form of a grotto and a traditional pilgrimage site for Christians everywhere. The Church of the Nativity was built later above the grotto. What does Mary of Agreda record about the birth and first resting plAce for the child Jesus?

While saint Joseph handed Her the wrappings and swaddling-clothes, which She had brought, She clothed Him with incomparable reverence, devotion and tenderness. Having thus swathed and clothed Him, his Mother, with heavenly wisdom, laid Him in the crib, as related by saint Luke. For this purpose She had arranged some straw and hay upon a stone in order to prepare for the Godman his first resting-place upon earth next to that which he had found in her arms.

The City of God, Book 4, Chapter 9

By contrast, the writings of Blessed Anne Catherine Emerich record the travel into Bethlehem and birth of our Lord in “From the Nativity of the Virgin Mary to the death of patriarch Saint Joseph – Part 5 ” at this site. It gives some reason why Joseph felt it was certain he would find room in the inn.

A short distance outside the city, about a quarter of an hour’s walk brought them to a large building surrounded by courtyards and smaller houses. There were trees in front of it, and all sorts of people encamped in tents around it. This house was once the paternal home of Joseph, and ages before it had been the family mansion of David. It was at this period used as the custom house of the Roman taxes. Joseph still had in the city a brother, who was an innkeeper. He was not his own brother, but a stepbrother.

From the Nativity of the Virgin Mary to the death of patriarch Saint Joseph – Part 5

Imagine his dissappointment when his own kinsmen would not provide any form of shelter for a women about to give birth. Eventually they reach the cave which is described by Emerich as

At last, they reached a hill before which stood trees, firs, pines, or cedars, and trees with small leaves like the box tree. In this hill was the cave or vault spoken of by Joseph. There were no houses around. One side of the cave was built up with rough masonry through which the open entrance of the shepherds led down into the valley. Joseph opened the light wicker door and, as they entered, the she-ass ran to meet them. She had left them near Joseph’s paternal house, and had run around the city to this cave. She frolicked around and leaped gaily about them, so that Mary said: “Behold! It is surely God’s will that we should be here.” But Joseph was worried and, in secret, a little ashamed, because he had so often alluded to the good reception they would meet in Bethlehem.

From the Nativity of the Virgin Mary to the death of patriarch Saint Joseph – Part 5

And she records the final hour when Christ is born.

It was five o’clock in the evening when Joseph brought Mary back again to the Crib Cave. He hung up several more lamps, and made a place under the shed before the door for the little she-ass, which came joyfully hurrying from the fields to meet them. When Mary told Joseph that her time was drawing near and that he should now betake himself to prayer, he left her and turned toward his sleeping place to do her bidding. Before entering his little recess, he looked back once toward that part of the cave where Mary knelt upon her couch in prayer, her back to him, her face toward the east. He saw the cave filled with the light that streamed from Mary, for she was entirely enveloped as if by flames. It was as if he were, like Moses, looking into the burning bush. He sank prostrate to the ground in prayer, and looked not back again. The glory around Mary became brighter and brighter, the lamps that Joseph had lit were no longer to be seen. Mary knelt, her flowing white robe spread out before her. At the twelfth hour, her prayer became ecstatic, and I saw her raised so far above the ground that one could see it beneath her. Her hands were crossed upon her breast, and the light around her grew even more resplendent.

I no longer saw the roof of the cave. Above Mary stretched a pathway of light up to Heaven, in which pathway it seemed as if one light came forth from another, as if one figure dissolved into another, and from these different spheres of light other heavenly figures issued. Mary continued in prayer, her eyes bent low upon the ground. At that moment she gave birth to the Infant Jesus. I saw Him like a tiny, shining Child, lying on the rug at her knees, and brighter far than all the other brilliancy.

She lifted the Child, along with the cover that she had thrown over It, to her breast and sat veiled, herself and Child quite enveloped. It may, perhaps, have been an hour after the birth when Mary called St. Joseph, who still lay prostrate in prayer. She laid the Child in the Crib, which had been filled with rushes and fine moss over which was spread a cover that hung down at the sides. The Crib stood over the stone trough. The floor of this part of the cave lay somewhat deeper than where the Child was born, and down to it steps had been formed in the earth. When Mary laid the Child in the Crib, both she and Joseph stood by It in tears, singing the praises of God.

From the Nativity of the Virgin Mary to the death of patriarch Saint Joseph – Part 5

St. Joseph was a carpenter by trade and it seems only logical that he would have fashioned some form of a crib from wood that was found in the grotto. And from the descriptions we can see that there was hay or moss with some sort of cover or swaddling cloth over it to let the baby rest upon. Whether a trough of stone or trough of wood it was a manger that was likely also used to the feed the animals.

Manger – “a trough or open box in a stable designed to hold feed or fodder for livestock”

The Bethlehem Star

Just this last week we witnessed a celestial event that also played out at the time of Jesus’ birth. The celestial event was the retrograde pattern of Saturn and Jupiter that appear to the human eye as if those two planets become a single star in the night sky that is brighter than any other.

Great Conjunction live stream: This is the closest conjunction in 400 years (Image: NASA)

A great documentary that shows when this might have occurred in the time of Christ’s birth.

The Origin of Christmas Carols

Do you know the origin of your favorite Christmas Carol? Here are a few of my favorite:

O Come, All Ye Faithful

“O Come, All Ye Faithful”, originally known as “Adeste Fidelas” in Latin, is well-known Christmas carol with disputed origins. The most popular English version of the song was written in 1841 by the English Catholic priest Frederick Oakeley. The original Latin song has been credited to several people including John IV of Portugal in the early to mid-17th century, John Reading in the late 17th century, and John Francis Wade in the mid-18th century. Wade’s version is the one used today and was first published in Cantus Diversi in 1751. A copy of Wade’s original manuscript is housed by Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

The original writer of this haunting hymn remains unknown, but the most widely acknowledged guess is a simple monk or nun. In the early 19th century, an Anglican priest named John Mason Neale was reading an ancient book of poetry and hymns and dusted off this unknown Latin poem, which was complete with music accompaniment.

Neale knew 20 languages, including Latin, and was able to translate this song into English. He lived in the Madeira islands near Africa, where he had established an orphanage, a school for girls, and a ministry to reclaim prostitutes. Neale first played this hymn for the people he served, thought to be the lowest of society. The hymn has remained in popular rotation ever since.

The 12 Days of Christmas

From the year 1558 to 1829 Catholics in England were prohibited by law from the practice of their Faith. The religion was officially illegal until Parliament finally enacted the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. Until then it was a crime to be a Catholic and to be faithful to the pope.

The 12 Days of Christmas’ was written as one of the ‘catechetical songs’ to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith. It was a memory aid, when to be caught with anything Popish would not only get you imprisoned, but possibly hanged, shortened by a head, or even subjected to the awful ordeal of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

The gifts referred to in the song are in fact coded references to the teachings of the Catholic faith. The ‘true love’ mentioned is God himself. The ‘me’ who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the tree is the tree of the cross.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Charles Wesley originally wrote this poem to be recited on Christmas Day, but it wasn’t the version we know today. The original was ten four-line verses, and instead of singing “Glory to the newborn King,” the line was, “Glory to the King of kings.”

That line was changed by George Whitfield, a student of Wesley’s, and he was also the one who eliminated the verses we no longer sing and who made the ones we do sing longer. (The line change to “newborn King” from “King of kings” was a controversial statement at the time; the former claims that the angels praised God the Father when Jesus was born, the latter claims Jesus himself was praised. This caused a riff between the men.)

Nonetheless, this hymn remains one of the most theologically rich carols we still sing, and music was later added by Felix Mendelssohn.

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