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Christmas Light in Winter's Darkness View Comments
By Kathleen M. Carroll

WE ALL KNOW the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. In Scripture, each Gospel writer tells the story a little differently. Matthew begins his Gospel with “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah...” before setting down his telling of the Nativity story. Luke gives the most detailed and comprehensive account of the birth of Jesus, with great emphasis on the Marian aspect of the story.

Mark and John both begin with Jesus’ encounter with John the Baptist, skipping over the story of Jesus’ life prior to the events that led to his public ministry. John’s Gospel, in fact, presents a mystical account of Jesus’ entry into the world with the words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). For most of us, however, the Gospel stories, our traditions and even a few elements contributed by pious and not-so-pious authors have merged into one big story about the birth of Jesus.

We know that Jesus was conceived by the Virgin Mary and born in Bethlehem in the humblest of surroundings. We know that wise men from the East followed a star to honor the newborn king, that Joseph had dreams that helped him protect the child and his mother. Our songs and traditions incorporate some or all of these elements into our celebrations and occasionally embellish a detail or invent new stories altogether. “The Little Drummer Boy,” for example, will not be peeking at you from the pages of any Bible.

Christmas wasn’t quite “Christmas” that first year, though. It was simply Jesus’ birthday. While his mother and earthly father and a few foreign gentlemen had an idea that this was no ordinary child, most people were not attaching the word “Christ” to him just yet.

So while Jesus was growing up, he and his family didn’t celebrate Christmas. Their family life centered on the holy days of the Jewish faith they all embraced. Though the Gospel writers don’t always go to great pains to spell this out for us (there is really very little about Jesus’ childhood in Scripture), it is evident in the stories about the presentation in the Temple (remember Simeon and Anna?) and in the finding in the Temple (after Jesus’ three-day disappearance). We can’t say with certainty that Mary and Joseph didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birth day, but the word birthday appears just once in the Bible (Genesis 40:20), to refer to the pharaoh’s birthday.

When did the celebration we call Christmas really start? About 300 years after the birth of Jesus.


Kathleen M. Carroll is managing editor of books for St. Anthony Messenger Press.

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Catherine of Alexandria: According to the <i>Legend of St. Catherine</i>, this young woman converted to Christianity after receiving a vision. At the age of 18, she debated 50 pagan philosophers. Amazed at her wisdom and debating skills, they became Christians—as did about 200 soldiers and members of the emperor’s family. All of them were martyred. 
<p>Sentenced to be executed on a spiked wheel, Catherine touched the wheel and it shattered. She was beheaded. Centuries later, angels are said to have carried the body of St. Catherine to a monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai. </p><p>Devotion to her spread as a result of the Crusades. She was invoked as the patroness of students, teachers, librarians and lawyers. Catherine is one of the 14 Holy Helpers, venerated especially in Germany and Hungary.</p> American Catholic Blog We exist because God is infinitely beautiful, infinitely good, and overflowing with a love that seeks to share itself. When he made us and placed us in this glittering created world, it was an act of pure generosity.

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