O Holy Night
The story of “O Holy Night” began in France where it spread around the world. In 1847, a French parish priest asked Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, a commissionaire of wines and a poet, to pen a poem for the Christmas mass. The poet turned to the gospel of Luke to guide his poem. After completing “Cantique de Noel,” he turned to one of his musician friends for assistance to add music. Adolphe Adams had produced operas and scored ballets. Adams quickly finished the score in time for midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The song was popular throughout France for many years.
This song was popularized throughout the world on Christmas Eve in 1906 by Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian professor living in Pittsburgh. In the first world radio broadcast, he read from the Gospel of Luke, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” His voice reached US navy vessels in the Atlantic. After Fessenden finished his recitation, he played “O Holy Night” on his violin. Thus, it became the first song to be broadcasted through the air over the radio waves. Collins, Ace. Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas. Michigan: Zondervan, 2001.
The First Nativity Scene
The first Nativity Scene is credited to St. Francis in 1223. St. Francis was a monk born in Assisi, Italy who loved life and all creatures. He created a live nativity scene since most people could not read. St. Francis wanted to teach them about the Christmas story. He was inspired by a recent visit to the Holy Land where he had visited the birthplace of Jesus. St. Francis set out a manger with straw and a few animals which were illuminated by candles and torches. The first Nativity scenes in Europe had real humans and animals participate. Eventually, statues replaced human and animal participants.
Most Nativity scenes will feature shepherds, Magi and angels. Often a donkey and ox are part of the scene as well as camels which were ridden by the Magi. The inclusion of the donkey and ox are an allusion to Isaiah 1:3: “the ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.
The First Christmas Carols
St. Francis is also credited with the beginning of the practice of the singing of songs and canticles that illustrated or told a story. The people in the plays sang the canticles that told the story. Usually, people sang in the language they spoke. These carols soon spread to France and Spain, then to the rest of Europe. Carols soon became popular in Europe in the 13th and 14th century. Carols such as “Good King Wenceslas” and “The Holly and the Ivy,” can be traced to the Middle Ages. Beginning in the 19th century, many of the most popular Christmas carols were written and sung. “Jingle Bells” was copyrighted in 1857.
Also, there was a resurgence of old Christmas music sung from villages in England. In Austria in 1818, Mohr and Gruber popularized the singing of carols with the composition of “Silent Night.” Franz Gruber composed the music hastily one Christmas Eve to a Christmas poem by Father Joseph Mohr. Legend has it that the organ had broken and the priest needed music for the Christmas Eve service. Franz Gruber, the church organist, set the words for a tenor, a bass, and two guitars. At the midnight service, “Silent Night” was heard for the first time.
The First Christmas Card
The first Christmas card was designed in 1843 by John Horsley, a British narrative painter, in London, England for Sir Henry Cole, the first director of Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The original Christmas card was lithographed on stiff cardboard that was approximately 5×3 inches with a design of a trellis of rustic-work. Each card was then hand-colored by a professional “colourer.”
The Christmas card was divided in the center with two side panels. Of note were the side panels which depicted two acts of charity. The acts of charity featured were feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Three children tuck into a plum pudding. Below is the greeting, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” The center of the card featured a family of three generations having a large Christmas dinner. The price of the card was one shilling. As printing methods improved, Christmas cards became more popular and were produced in large numbers starting in 1860.
The Three Wise Men
According to the Bible, the three wise men came from the East to Jerusalem. Most scholars agree that the wise men came from Babylon, Persia or southwest Saudi Arabia. Only in recent western tradition have the wise men been portrayed as kings. The three kings or wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold and spices would have come east of Israel from Arabia. Gold was a sign of royalty. Frankincense was used as a perfume product for worship. The offering of incense on the incense altar was a priestly office in Israel. Myrrh was used in perfumes for burial and for medicinal purposes. Myrrh is a sedative and known to inhibit bacterial growth. The gifts brought from the East were to fulfill the prophecy from Isaiah 60:6: “All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praises of the Lord.”
The Visit of the Magi
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the times of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Matthew 2:1-6
Star of Bethlehem
According to Rick Larsen, a biblical researcher, the birth of Jesus was heralded in the sky. Based on his research, Larsen discovered that in September of 3BC, Jupiter, the planet of kings met with Regulus, which is the brightest star in Leo or the constellation of the Lion. For the Babylonians, the star Regulus meant king. The nation of Israel is referred to as the Lion of Judah. Therefore, during the Jewish New Year, the Planet of Kings met the Star of Kings.
In 3/2 BC, Jupiter would have had a retrograde motion or which appeared to be a backward motion as it headed to Regulus. This retrograde motion would have occurred three times. To an observant magus, Jupiter would have “danced out a halo above the star of kings,” according to Larsen.
In Genesis, Chapter 49, it is written, “You are a lion’s cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness—who dares to rouse him? The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.” Ancient stargazers would have concluded that they were seeing signs of a Jewish king.
By the following June, nine months later, Jupiter would be seen very close to Venus, the mother planet. Jupiter would appear to join Venus. Together, they would appear as one brilliant star in the sky in 2 BC. That star would be brightly visible in the sky for several months.
When King Herod heard from the Magi that they were following a star to worship the newborn king of the Jews, he became perturbed. When King Herod called together all the chief priests and teachers of the law, he was informed of the following prophecy from Micah, “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.” www.bethlehemstar.net