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Some traditions are mysteries

December 24, 2007

by Roz Kohls

Our family celebrates more on Christmas Eve, than on Christmas Day, even though nothing important in the Biblical account of the Nativity happened the day before Christmas.

Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas Eve, there were no shepherds, singing angels, and no star or wisemen either. If you think about it, celebrating Christmas Eve is a strange custom. The German side of my family always opened gifts Christmas Eve, and partied on Christmas Eve. I guess my present-day family followed suit, even though it doesn’t make sense.

Several of our Christmas customs are peculiar. Take the date, Dec. 25, for example. No one knows exactly when Jesus was born. We use Dec. 25 because it is the date of Saturnalia, a big ancient Roman holiday in which gifts were exchanged.

It is possible that Jesus was born in the spring. Shepherds were out in the fields overnight, something they did during the lambing season in the spring.

Whenever we see pictures of the angels who appeared to the shepherds, they almost always are shown as beautiful winged beings with blonde hair and flowing white robes.

Actually, the shepherds were terrified of them.

Epiphany didn’t happen Jan. 6 either. The wisemen couldn’t have traveled to Bethlehem that quickly. They also didn’t visit Jesus while he was still in the manger in the stable, as is pictured in most nativity scenes. The wisemen came from faraway East, maybe from where Iraq is today, and it would have taken them months to get to Bethlehem. By the time the wisemen arrived, Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus probably were staying in a house.

The wisemen often are shown as kings, but they weren’t. They were the equivalent of today’s university professors, rocket scientists from NASA, or educated people with a Ph.D.

The tradition of calling the wisemen kings, probably developed because the wisemen brought very expensive gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, to Jesus.

There also were more than three wisemen. The three wisemen shown in Christmas artwork represent the three races.

At least St. Nicholas has a Christian origin. He was a bishop in the early Christian church in Myra, what is now Turkey. Mistletoe, holly, elves and winter solstice celebrations, however, have pagan roots, going back before Jesus was ever born.

We also have been adding symbols, such as polar bears, penguins and snowmen, that have nothing to do with the original Christmas, probably so non-Christians can celebrate Christmas without its religious overtones.

Don’t even get me started on the mysteries of fruitcake and lutefisk.