Posts Tagged ‘wise men’

The Characters of Christmas – Jesus

December 24, 2016

“For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11 NKJV)

There has never been a more awaited birth or a longer celebrated one.  Ever since sin first entered the Garden of Eden through Adam and Eve, the world waited for the coming of the One who would destroy sin and the evil one.  Then one night in a little town named Bethlehem the One arrived as a little baby, God’s gift to mankind, the first Christmas gift.

Many men prophesied about this One, the Messiah, Savior of all the world.  Moses wrote that this One would be born of a woman (Genesis 3:15), a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah (Genesis 17:3, 7, 19, 21:12, 22:18, 28:13-14, 49:8-10, Numbers 24:17).  Isaiah added that He would descend from Jesse (Isaiah 11:1); and Jeremiah added that He would come from Jesse’s son David, king of Israel (Jeremiah 23:5, 33:15).  The prophet Micah further said that out of all the towns in Judah He would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:1-3).  Isaiah further prophesied that He would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14).  David also foretold that God would be the Father of the Savior (Psalm 2:7).  This had to be because He could not save the world from their sins if He had sin in His nature too.  Since the sin nature was passed on through the man, the mother of the Savior had to be a virgin and the father had to be God.  Isaiah also said that this One would be God Himself (Isaiah 9:6-7).

King David, along with the prophet Isaiah, said that kings would bring Him gifts and bow down to worship Him (Psalm 72:10-15, Isaiah 60:3).  Hosea prophesied that He would spend time in Egypt (Hosea 11:1), and Jeremiah foretold the weeping that occurred when Herod killed all the boy babies two years old and under in Bethlehem (Jeremiah 31:15).  Isaiah even revealed that the Savior would live in the area around Galilee (Isaiah 9:1-2).  Many more prophesies were recorded throughout the Old Testament about the Messiah, the Savior, but we won’t go into them here.

Only one person fulfilled all these prophesies.  He was born in Bethlehem to a virgin, Mary, a direct descendant of King David.  He was named Jesus. Angels announced his birth to shepherds. Kings known as wise men or magi brought Him gifts and bowed down to worship Him.  He was taken to Egypt by Mary and Joseph just before Herod called for the killing of Bethlehem’s baby boys two years old and younger.  He lived there until Herod died.  Then Joseph brought the family back to Nazareth in the region of Galilee.

Jesus lived a life just like we do.  He was tempted to sin just like we are, but He never sinned.  He suffered persecutions from those who hated Who He was and what He stood for.  Then He was crucified on a cruel Roman cross not because of something He did for He did nothing wrong but because He was the Son of God.  He went to the cross as God’s sacrificial lamb willingly giving up His life so that sin and the Devil’s hold on humanity would be broken forever.  Then Jesus rose from the dead to complete His wonderful work of salvation.  All this was prophesied in the Old Testament, too.

This year as you celebrate the birth of Jesus consider what gift you are going to give Him.  The gift He wants most is you.

Merry Christmas!

Names of Jesus
The Amen – Revelation 3:14
Angel – Genesis 48:16, Exodus 23:20,21
Anointed – Psalm 2:2
Apostle – Hebrews 3:1
Author and Finisher of our faith – Hebrews 12:2
Beginning and End of the Creation of God – Revelation 3:14, 22:13
Beloved Son – Matthew 3:17
My Beloved – Ephesians 1:6
Only Begotten – John 1:14, 18
The Branch – Isaiah 11:1, Matthew 2:23
Bread of Life – John 6:32
Bridegroom – Matthew 9:15
Christ “Messiah, the Anointed One” – John 1:41
Consolation – Luke 2:25
Cornerstone – Ephesians 2:20
Counselor – Isaiah 9:6, Colossians 2:3
Dayspring – Luke 1:78
Deliverer – Luke 2:11
Door – John 10:9
Emmanuel – Isaiah 7:14
The Faithful Witness – Revelation 5:5
The Father of Eternity – Isaiah 9:6, Revelation 1:8
God – Isaiah 9:6, John 1:1
God, My Savior – Isaiah 45:1
The Mighty God – Isaiah 9:6, John 1:1-3
Governor – Matthew 2:6
Head of the Church – Ephesians 5:23
Heir – Hebrews 1:2
Holy One – Isaiah 41:14, Mark 1:24
I Am – John 8:58
Immanuel – Isaiah 7:14, I Timothy 3:16
Israel – Isaiah 49:3
Jesus – Matthew 1:21
Jesus Christ – John 1:17
Jesus of Nazareth – Mark 1:24, Luke 24:19
King – Matthew 21:5, Psalm 2:6, Matthew 2:1-2
King of Kings and the Lord of Lords – Revelation 19:16
Lamb of God – John 1:14
The Last Adam – I Corinthians 15:45
Life – John 14:6
Light of the World – John 8:12
The Lion of Judah – Revelation 5:5
LORD – Isaiah 40:3, Mark 1:1-8
Lord – Psalm 110:1, Luke 20:41-44
Lord Jesus – John 20:28
Man – 1 Timothy 2:5
The Second Man – 1 Corinthians 15:47
The Master – Matthew 9:11, 23:8
Messiah – Daniel 9:25, John 1:41
The Messiah – Daniel 9:25-26, Isaiah 61:1, Luke 4:16-21
Paraclete – John 16:7, 14, 15
High Priest – Hebrews 3:1
Priest – Psalm 110:4, Hebrews 3:1, 5:5-6
Prince of Peace – Isaiah 9:6, Ephesians 2:14
Prophet – Deuteronomy 11:15, 18; Matthew 21:11; Luke 24:19
The Prophet – Deuteronomy 18:15-18, John 12:49-50
Rabbi – John 1:49, 20:16
Resurrection and Life – John 11:25
Righteous One – 1 Corinthians 1:30
Rock – Matthew 16:18
Savior, Christ the Lord – Luke 2:11, Titus 2:13, 2 Timothy 2:10
Savior of the World – 1 John 4:14
The Seed – Genesis 15:5, Galatians 3:16
Servant – Isaiah 42:1, 49:7
The Servant of the Lord – Isaiah 42:1, 52:13, Philippians 2:7
Good Shepherd – John 10:11
Shiloh – Genesis 49:10, Ezekiel 21:27
Son of the Blessed – Mark 14:61
Son of David – Matthew 12:23
Son of God – John 10:36
Son of Man – Mark 10:45
The Son – Psalm 2:7, Hebrews 5:8
The Son of Man – Daniel 7:13, Matthew 20:28
Stone – Matthew 21:42, 1 Peter 2:8
The Stone – Psalm 118:22, 1 Peter 2:4-8
Teacher – John 3:2, Matthew 9:11
Truth – John 14:6
True Vine – John 15:1
The Way – John 14:6
Wonderful – Isaiah 9:6, John 1:14
Word – John 1:1

The Characters of Christmas – Wise Men

December 17, 2016

Of all the characters in the Christmas story the wise men may have the least said about them in the Bible and the most legend about them in stories and song.  Here’s what we do know about the wise men based on what the Bible tells us.

First, there was more than one wise man.  The Bible says that they were wise “men” plural, but it doesn’t reveal the actual number of wise men.  Many say there were three wise men because of the number of gifts recorded as being given to Jesus.  Next, we know that they came from the East.  How far to the East we do not know.  They may have been from Persia or even the orient.  The wise men were astrologers; they studied the stars.  They knew the stars very well so that when His star appeared they knew what they needed to do.

When they saw the star they left the comfort of their homes to seek out the newborn King of the Jews.  They had a basic knowledge of this baby.  They knew that He was to be King of the Jews and that He was to be worshiped.  That is why they went to Jerusalem, to find where this King was to be born.  The Bible does not say that the wise men followed the star they saw from their home to Jerusalem.  It just says that they saw the King’s star in the East and came to worship Him.

The wise men caused quite a stir in Jerusalem.  No one knew of a newborn King.  King Herod, a ruthless and paranoid man, was troubled most of all.  Was this another plot to depose him?  He decided to play along with the wise men, find out where the baby was to be born, and have the wise men find the baby for him.  Then he would destroy this new King.  The chief priests and scribes, the experts in the Jewish scriptures, came and told the wise men that the baby was to be born in Bethlehem.  Herod told the wise men to look for the baby and to return to tell him where He was so he could go worship Him, too.

When the wise men left Herod’s palace they looked up and once again saw the King’s star.  This time the star led them to Bethlehem to the house where Jesus was.  Some have speculated that the star was just a lining up of certain planets or a comet.  But can a comet or a group of planets way up in the cosmos lead a group of men to a particular town and point out a particular house within that town?  Instead the star seems to be a special miracle star that God made expressly for the purpose of showing the wise men where His Son, the newborn King of the Jews, was staying.

The Bible does not say how close to the birth of Jesus the wise men arrived in Bethlehem.  However, it is safe to say that it was at least forty days and may have been as much as two years after the birth.  We do know that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus left for Egypt to flee Herod after the wise men left, probably the same night.  When Jesus was forty days old He was taken to the temple so the wise men could not have arrived before then.  We also know that when Herod discovered that the wise men had no intention of telling him where the newborn King of the Jews was he killed every baby in Bethlehem two years old and younger.  This may be because the wise men traveled for two years before finding the baby Jesus.  The exact time is unknown, but we do know that it was long enough that Joseph found a house for the young family to live in.  The wise men never went to the stable.

When the wise men saw Jesus they fell down and worshiped Him; and they gave Him gifts: gold, signifying that Jesus is King of the world (that gold financed the family’s trip to Egypt to flee Herod), frankincense, a present signifying that Jesus is our High Priest, and myrrh, signifying Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross for the sins of mankind.

That night God warned the wise men in a dream not to return to Herod.  The wise men obeyed returning to their home by a different route.

God’s Son Jesus was sent to the earth to be the Savior of all mankind.  He is the Savior of the common man as shown by His announcement to the shepherds.  He is also the Savior of the rich man and the scholar.  Jesus is Savior and Lord of all.

 

The Characters of Christmas – Mary

November 25, 2016

It has been several years since I posted this blog series so I decided to repost it.  As Advent begins this weekend use these reflections as part of your Advent contemplations.


Mary lived with her family in the town of Nazareth.  They were a poor family living in a town with a poor reputation.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the popular sentiment of the day.  They were descendants of King David through David’s son Nathan, but since the Romans were in control very few of the Jewish royal family were affluent.

Mary was a young girl, a virgin.  We don’t know her age.  Some believe she may have been as young as fourteen years old; others say she was older.  The Bible, however, does not give her age.  She was a loving, caring girl with a servant’s heart.  She was a thankful, trusting person, too.  She was obedient both to her parents and her God.  She was a normal, young Jewish girl with dreams of being a good wife and mother.

Mary’s parents were godly people who made sure Mary also knew God and loved Him.  They taught her the Holy Scriptures.  Because of this Mary was highly favored by God.

Mary was espoused to a man named Joseph, a godly man who also loved God, when she entertained a special visitor.  The angel Gabriel was sent by God to give a special message to Mary.  Gabriel said that God was with Mary and that she was blessed among women.  Gabriel revealed that she was chosen by God to be the mother of the Messiah.  Mary knew all the prophesies about the Messiah.  She probably hoped that she would be the one to give him life, but she was still surprised and probably stunned to hear that she was the one chosen by God to bear His Son.  She was willing to be used by God but questioned how this was to come about.  She was a virgin.  She never had sex with any man.  So how was she to have this baby?  Gabriel explained that God would take care of everything, and Mary understood that this impregnation would occur without the help of a man.  Mary must have wondered what other people would think of her.  Here she would be pregnant without a husband.  Oh, how the gossip would fly.  And what would Joseph think?  Would he leave her?  Would he divorce her?  Would he make an example of her and cause her to go before the judges?  She knew that God’s law said adulteresses should be put to death.  But Mary’s faith and trust in God shone forth.  She knew if God called her to carry His Son then He would take care of her even if the whole world were against her.

Mary was a loving, caring girl with a servant’s heart as evidenced by what she did when she heard that her cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant.  Mary, being pregnant herself, left her home and stayed with Elizabeth and her husband for three months helping them with the housework, with the work in the fields, with everything imaginable.  Elizabeth’s pregnancy, like Mary’s, was a miraculous pregnancy.  Elizabeth and her husband were too old to have children; yet God intervened and caused them to have a child.

Mary was a faithful girl, faithful to her God and faithful to her husband.  Instead of staying in Nazareth when the Romans made Joseph go to Bethlehem to be counted in the census, where she could have had her baby in a warm house, Mary went with Joseph on the rough, possibly even dangerous trip to Bethlehem; and she made this trip when she was nine months pregnant.  Many believe that Mary made the trip riding on a donkey.  The Bible doesn’t say that.  She may have been walking.  Not likely, but it may have happened. I am sure Joseph would have done all he could to make the trip as easy as possible for Mary.  When they arrived at Bethlehem they were tired.  Joseph spent a lot of time going from inn to inn looking for a place for them to stay especially since Mary could give birth at any time, but nothing was available.  Mary was gracious.  When a stable was offered she willingly took it, choosing to sleep on the straw instead of the hard, cold ground.

Mary was also a strong girl, strong spiritually and strong physically, too.  She was tired from the long trip, tired from the search for a place to spend the night.  All she wanted to do was lay down and sleep, but she could not. Labor pains began.  The baby was born.  And yet she still could not rest for a group of shepherds entered the stable asking, “Is this the place?”  Then they explained why they were there.  What an incredible, unbelievable story!  Unbelievable to anyone who has never interacted with an angel.  Mary believed.  Mary knew why they were there worshiping her little Son.  Yet Mary did not understand everything that was happening because she pondered in her heart all that she heard.  She did not understand why her God would send His Son birthed by her to save the world from their sins.  Only after the shepherds left could Mary get some sleep if her thoughts did not keep her awake.

Two other times we are told that Mary pondered things she saw and heard in her heart.  One was about forty days after Jesus’ birth.  She and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to offer the sacrifices of purification as demanded by Jewish law and the scriptures.  Simeon and Anna, two elderly people who were frequently found at the temple, came to them and worshiped Jesus and told Mary their story.  Simeon even prophesied about Jesus’ death.  This must have really puzzled Mary.  The next was when the wise men knocked on the door of their house.  We do not know exactly when this was as the Bible does not say.  We can surmise that it was more than forty days after Jesus’ birth because Mary, Joseph, and Jesus left for Egypt the soon after the wise men left.  It may have been as long as two years after Jesus’ birth.  Why else would Herod have killed all babies in Bethlehem two years old and younger?  The wise men worshiped her Son and gave him wonderful gifts.  The gifts that were given to Jesus would have caused anyone to stop and think.  Gold is a kingly gift, frankincense a priestly gift, and myrrh a burying spice.

Mary truly was blessed among women and highly favored with God and man.  She was chosen by God to bring His Son into the world.  She believed God and trusted Him to get her through the hardships of life and trusted her son, the Son of God, to take away her sins and be her Savior.

 

Christmas in Brazil

July 28, 2016

brazil_treeThose who would love to spend Christmas on Christmas Island might enjoy spending Christmas in Brazil.  Temperatures range from 70 degrees Fahrenheit to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  A Brazilian Christmas, a blend of Portuguese, African, and Indian customs, is a holy time of remembering the birth of Christ celebrated with close friends and family. 

Papai Noel:  Although pictured as doing so Santa Claus, or Papai Noel as Brazilians know him, does not travel by sleigh and reindeer.  Instead he travels by helicopter.  In early December thousands of children fill Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro waiting for the arrival of Papai Noel.  The helicopter lands; Papai Noel steps out, and the children flood the field.  He greets the children shaking their hands and giving them small toys, such as balloons, water pistols, whistles, and more, as gifts.  After the gift-giving Papai Noel steps to a microphone on stage and leads everyone in a sing-a-long.  Local singers and musicians accompany the throng as they sing Christmas carols and other popular songs.

Children in Brazil do not hang stockings for Papai Noel to fill on Christmas Eve.  Instead, in northern Brazil, children put their shoes by the tree, by their bed, or near a window to be filled with all sorts of small toys and goodies by Papai Noel when he arrives later that night after the children are asleep.

Papai Noel personally visits the children in the southern regions of Brazil earlier in the evening on Christmas Eve.  He takes time to talk to each child before giving presents to the child.  Often Papai Noel is a relative, a friend of the family, or a co-worker.

Presepios:  With the vast majority of Brazilians being a religious people it is not surprising that every church and nearly every home puts up a presepio or nativity scene.

Many churches display life-sized versions of the presepio including life-sized animals.  Among those animals is sure to appear a rooster to remind parishioners of the Missa do Galo (Mass of the Rooster).  Some church presepios are so elaborate that non-church-goers go to church to see them.

Home presepios may be set up in early December; others are not set up until Christmas Eve day.  Some are small fitting on a coffee table; others fill a whole room.  Some are simple; others are abundant.  Whether large or small, many include pieces that have been handed down for generations.

Most home presepios include the Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the three magi, angels, a star, cows, chickens, sheep, and a rooster.  One of the peculiarities of these home presepios is the figures may not be the same scale.  It is not uncommon for Jesus to be larger than some of the other figures.  Another peculiarity comes in the personal touches.  One may see Brazilian animals, Brazilian fruits, airplanes, trains, and other “impossible” figures included in family presepios.

Christmas cards:  Usually people try to send their Christmas cards so the recipients get them before Christmas; but in Brazil, people think nothing of sending their cards after Christmas.  Many cards arrive at their destinations between December 25 and January 6.

Most cards have the traditional wintery scenes showing lots of snow, Santa Claus and his reindeer, Christmas trees covered in snow, and children wrapped in heavy, warm winter clothing.  However, more cards are appearing showing traditional Brazilian weather and scenes of sandy beaches, palm trees, Christmas trees, and, more importantly, no snow.


Look for more about Christmas in Brazil at CustomsOfChristmas.com.

Christmas in Mexico

February 24, 2015

Las Posada lead by children dressed as Mary and Joseph.The Christmas season in Mexico lasts about two months and is filled with traditions that have lasted, in some cases, for nearly five hundred years.

Christmas was brought to Mexico by Catholic missionaries who brought the Christian faith to the natives of Mexico after it was discovered by Spanish explorers in the 16th century.  In 1538 Fray Pedro de Gante invited all the Indians within twenty leagues of Mexico City to attend the first Christmas celebration.  These Christmas masses and the parties and feasting that surrounded the celebration became so popular that Fray Diego de Soria in 1587 received permission to hold the Christmas masses out of doors.  These outdoor Christmas masses were held nightly from December 16 to 24.  As time went on the natives of that area added their own touches to the Christmas celebrations and art to make Mexico’s Christmas celebration what it is today.

On or around December 16 families all over Mexico put up their nacimientos or nativity scenes.  This is also the first of nine nights of posadas.  The last night of posadas followed by a special midnight Mass occurs on December 24.  After Mass finishes on the 25th of December families return home to a Christmas feast of turkey, tortillas, fried peppers, vegetables, fruits, candies, hot chocolate with vanilla and cinnamon, and a Christmas salad of fruit, nuts, beets, and sugar cane sprinkled with tiny colored candies.  Other food items may be served as well or in place of these items as desired by the family.  Children may get small gifts at this time, but they usually do not receive gifts until January 6.  December 28 is El Dia de los Inocentes or Day of the Innocents.  On this day children play tricks on their friends much like children do in the United States on April Fool’s Day.  The people of Mexico welcome the new year with parties, fireworks, and lots of noise, games, and food.  January 6 is El Dia de los Reys, the Day of the Three Kings or Epiphany.  Children receive their gifts from the Magi, not Santa Claus, on this day.  During the parties and feasting on this day a cake called La Rosca de Reyes or King’s Ring Cake is served.  Baked in this cake is a small Christ Child doll.  The finder of this doll has to host a party on February 2.  February 2 is the last day of the Christmas season.  Known as El Dis de la Candelaria or Candlemas, the day is filled with huge fireworks and partying.  Each family takes the Christ Child from their nacimiento to the priest to be blessed before packing the nacimiento away for another year.

Read more about Christmas in Mexico including some very unique customs here at CustomsOfChristmas.com.


As we are now in the middle of the Easter season visit our sister site CustomsOfEaster.com to explore the origins of many of our customs of Easter.

Merry Christmas! From CustomsOfChristmas.com

December 24, 2014

Luke 2:1-20

1nativity scene And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3 So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. 6 So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, 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, goodwill toward men!” 15 So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. 17 Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. 18 And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.

Matthew 2:1-12

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: 6 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” 9 When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

 

Merry Christmas!

Christmas in Italy – part 2

June 25, 2013

Wooden puppets depicting Italy's gift giver, Befana.

Wooden puppets depicting Italy’s gift giver, Befana.

The most cherished custom of the Italian Christmas is setting up and displaying the crèche or nativity scene. As the focus of the family’s decorating, the crèche may be simple and homemade or very elaborate with hundreds of pieces and many scenes. The tradition of the nativity scene was started in the early 1200s by St. Francis of Assisi who told the story of the birth of Christ using a living nativity complete with live animals. Contests are held every year for the best nativity display. Some towns get into the spirit by hosting living nativities some with up to 600 actors involved.

No matter how simple or how fancy the crèche, the Christ child in the manger is most cherished by the Italian people. Many will place their presents near the manger instead of under a Christmas tree, and families may even pray together in front of the manger.

A favorite set of figures found in many nativity scenes are the shepherds playing bagpipes. Legend has it that shepherds playing bagpipes played for Mary in Bethlehem when Christ was born. At one time bagpipe-playing shepherds would come from the fields in the mountains to play at Christmastime in the marketplaces and other locations in Rome. Today folk musicians, called zampognari, keep the tradition alive. These zampognari visit every carpenter’s shop and ever nativity and sing and play in front of the manger scene especially during the Christmas Novena. It is no wonder that the sound that most characterizes the Italian Christmas is that of bagpipe-playing zampognari.

Christmas trees are not as popular in Italy as they are in other areas of the world. Trees are most popular in the northern regions of Italy. Christmas trees may be imported from northern Europe, be artificial, or be live, potted trees. Many good things to eat are hung from the branches accompanied by many lights and other baubles. In Southern Italy many people hang fresh fruit and foil-covered chocolates on their tree. Children are allowed to eat the trimmings on January 6.

On Christmas Eve day a strict fast is observed until evening when a meatless meal is served. Fish may be served at this meal but no meat. Christmas day is a feast day. There is no “typical” Christmas menu. The main dish usually varies according to the region and the tastes and traditions of the family. In southern Italy baked, roasted, fried, or steamed eels served with rice may be the main dish while squid is a favorite along the sea coast. Other dishes enjoyed during the Christmas feast include clams, codfish, many kinds of beans, vegetables in vinegar, salads, bread, and pasta.

Gift giving in Italy is not associated with Christmas, as it is in many parts of the world. Instead Italians give gifts to each other on the day legend says the three kings gave their gifts to the Christ child, Epiphany or January 6. The story goes that as the three kings were on their way to Bethlehem they stopped at the house of an old woman to ask for directions. The old woman was busy cleaning her house and was angry at the kings for interrupting her work. The kings explained they were on their way to find a baby, the Christ child, born King of the Jews and worship him. Would she like to go along with them? No, she did not know how to get to Bethlehem nor did she want to find a squalling baby and worship him. “Now go away and let me get back to my work.” The kings left. The next morning the old woman had second thoughts. She started following the three kings hoping to find them. She could not find them. She stopped to ask about the kings and to ask for directions for Bethlehem. No one could help her. She traveled on looking for the baby and his parents. As she traveled she started leaving presents for the children in houses she passed. She wanted to give presents to the Christ child, but she did not know where he might be living. Legend says she is still wandering through the Earth looking for the Christ child.

This old woman known as Befana gives gifts to Italian children on January 6. The name Befana comes from the Italian word for Epiphany, Epifania. She is personified with white, disheveled hair, a hooked nose, and dressed in black. She is often portrayed as riding a broomstick. The first mention of Befana in Italian literature was in a poem written by Agnolo Firenzada, a poet from Tuscany. Children write notes to Befana asking for toys during the weeks preceding Epiphany.

Today, while Befana is the gift bearer for Italian children, Santa Claus is making inroads in Italian society.

As the Italian people say goodbye to the old year Befana appears again. In many towns and cities across Italy people go to the town square and burn a Befana puppet or a straw effigy of Befana. This time Befana symbolizes the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new year.

The Italian people have many wonderful customs for celebrating Christmas. From the intricate nativity villages to the bagpipe-playing zampognari to gift-giving Befana: these traditions bring Italian uniqueness to the world’s customs of Christmas.

If you wish to have an Italian Christmas this year you may want to have this favorite Italian Christmas dish.

Fried Eel

2 ½ pounds eels, cleaned and dried
½ cup flour
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon rosemary
1/3 cup olive oil
Lemon slices

Cut eels crosswise into 3-inch pieces. Coat with flour and season with salt, pepper, and rosemary. Heat oil in a skillet. Add coated eel pieces and fry over medium heat until golden brown on both sides (about 10 minutes). Accompany eel with lemon slices. Makes about 6 servings.

The origin of Christmas gift giving

March 24, 2013

The first gifts given to honor the birth of the Christ child came from a group of men called wise men or magi. The Bible does not tell us how many wise men there were. Most people assume there were three because of the three gifts mentioned, but there could have been more. These gifts were expensive and reflected the wise men’s perception of Jesus’ station in life. But those gifts were not the first Christmas gifts. The first Christmas gift came from God Himself. This is the origin of Christmas gift giving: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. That whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

Gifts had been exchanged during the midwinter season for many years before Christ was born. The Romans are credited with starting the custom of giving gifts during their midwinter festivals. The first festival, Saturnalia, occurred in mid to late December. Gifts of wax candles, wax fruit, and clay dolls were exchanged between social peers. Gifts and good wishes were given to friends and family during the New Year festival Kalends.

As the Roman empire grew gift giving spread throughout Europe. As time went on the celebration of Saturnalia died out but gift giving during the New Year’s celebration continued. In many places, like England, gift giving was reserved for those within the social hierarchy. Peasants gave gifts of farm produce to their lord who then provided a Christmas feast. Nobles gave gifts to the king and queen who also gave gifts to their court. This practice occurred not on Christmas day but on New Year’s day. It was still considered to be a part of the Christmas because the Christmas season, during the medieval period lasted for twelve days. There is no record of gift giving between friends or family members during this time.

The first recorded occurrence of Christmas gift giving between family and friends comes from 16th century Germany. Children received “Christ-bundles” consisting of coins, sugarplums, nuts, apples, dolls, clothing, school books, religious books, or writing materials. Parents told their children that the Christkind, or Christ child, brought their gifts. Through the 17th and 18th centuries the tradition spread throughout Europe and England. Popular gifts included food items, warm clothing, accessories, jewelry, pens, watches, and books for children.

Eventually, by early 19th century, New Year’s gift giving was absorbed by Christmas gift giving. Partly this was due to the number of days within the Christmas season where gifts were exchanged. Some European countries honored St. Nicholas, patron saint of children, on his day by giving gifts to children, a practice that some say was started by nuns in central France who left packages of nuts, oranges, and other “good things to eat” on the doorsteps of poor families with children on St. Nicholas’s eve. Others exchanged gifts on St. Martin’s (Martinmas) eve in honor of the saint’s practice of riding through the countryside giving treats to children. And still others exchanged gifts on St. Stephen’s Day. On this day during the Middle Ages parish priests opened up church alms boxes and distributed the coins found inside to the needy. This practice grew to include boxed gifts of food, money, and clothing given by the affluent in society to those in the working class who served them in some fashion during the year. St. Stephen’s Day soon lost its identity to these gift boxes and became Boxing Day.

The custom of exchanging gifts between friends and family members became widespread during the 19th century. This was aided by the spread of the German Christmas tree as the repository for Christmas gifts and the popularity of Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, as the giver of Christmas gifts.

Today people all over the world spend billions of dollars every year for Christmas gifts. For some Christmas gift giving is a bother trying to out-give one another, remembering everyone from whom a gift may be received, or facing the high cost of the Christmas season. For others Christmas gift giving is a joy a chance to express appreciation and love to others, a chance to give of oneself to those who cannot give back, and a time to honor the One whose birthday is being celebrated. Which group do you belong? I hope it is the latter.

The Characters of Christmas – Wise Men

December 23, 2012

Of all the characters in the Christmas story the wise men may have the least said about them in the Bible and the most legend about them in stories and song. Here’s what we do know about the wise men based on what the Bible tells us.

First, there was more than one wise man. The Bible says that they were wise “men” plural, but it doesn’t reveal the actual number of wise men. Many say there were three wise men because of the number of gifts recorded as being given to Jesus. Next, we know that they came from the East. How far to the East we do not know. They may have been from Persia or even the orient. The wise men were astrologers; they studied the stars. They knew the stars very well so that when His star appeared they knew what they needed to do.

When they saw the star they left the comfort of their homes to seek out the newborn King of the Jews. They had a basic knowledge of this baby. They knew that He was to be King of the Jews and that He was to be worshiped. That is why they went to Jerusalem, to find where this King was to be born. The Bible does not say that the wise men followed the star they saw from their home to Jerusalem. It just says that they saw the King’s star in the East and came to worship Him.

The wise men caused quite a stir in Jerusalem. No one knew of a newborn King. King Herod, a ruthless and paranoid man, was troubled most of all. Was this another plot to depose him? He decided to play along with the wise men, find out where the baby was to be born, and have the wise men find the baby for him. Then he would destroy this new King. The chief priests and scribes, the experts in the Jewish scriptures, came and told the wise men that the baby was to be born in Bethlehem. Herod told the wise men to look for the baby and to return to tell him where He was so he could go worship Him, too.

When the wise men left Herod’s palace they looked up and once again saw the King’s star. This time the star led them to Bethlehem to the house where Jesus was. Some have speculated that the star was just a lining up of certain planets or a comet. But can a comet or a group of planets way up in the cosmos lead a group of men to a particular town and point out a particular house within that town? Instead the star seems to be a special miracle star that God made expressly for the purpose of showing the wise men where His Son, the newborn King of the Jews, was staying.

The Bible does not say how close to the birth of Jesus the wise men arrived in Bethlehem. However, it is safe to say that it was at least forty days and may have been as much as two years after the birth. We do know that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus left for Egypt to flee Herod after the wise men left, probably the same night. When Jesus was forty days old He was taken to the temple so the wise men could not have arrived before then. We also know that when Herod discovered that the wise men had no intention of telling him where the newborn King of the Jews was he killed every baby in Bethlehem two years old and younger. This may be because the wise men traveled for two years before finding the baby Jesus. The exact time is unknown, but we do know that it was long enough that Joseph found a house for the young family to live in. The wise men never went to the stable.

When the wise men saw Jesus they fell down and worshiped Him; and they gave Him gifts: gold, signifying that Jesus is King of the world (that gold financed the family’s trip to Egypt to flee Herod), frankincense, a present signifying that Jesus is our High Priest, and myrrh, signifying Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross for the sins of mankind.

That night God warned the wise men in a dream not to return to Herod. The wise men obeyed returning to their home by a different route.

God’s Son Jesus was sent to the earth to be the Savior of all mankind. He is the Savior of the common man as shown by His announcement to the shepherds. He is also the Savior of the rich man and the scholar. Jesus is Savior and Lord of all.

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