The questions are from our readers, and the answers are from the staff and editors of The Catholic Answer magazine.

Santa Claus/St. Nicholas

Q. Can you explain to me the connection between St. Nicholas and Santa Claus?

A. The actual date of Jesus’ birth is long lost in the mists of ancient history. The fact that shepherds were “in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Lk 2:8) suggests that it was springtime. So why did the Church establish the feast of the Nativity on December 25, in the dead of winter?

 The common explanation today was propagated by an 18th-century German Protestant scholar who sought to prove that the Catholic Church was guilty of various “paganizations.” He claimed that, since a pagan Roman feast was celebrated on December 25 in ancient times to honor the sun, the Church decided to co-opt it by having Christians observe Christmas festivities instead. Nevertheless, this claim has been challenged by historians who believe that events actually developed the other way around.

This date, they insist, had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before the year 274, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before then. Rather, the pagan feast celebrating the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun,” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on December 25 of that year, had political purposes and served to give a pagan significance to a date already important to Roman Christians. Later, Christians in turn re-appropriated the pagan celebration to refer to the birth of Jesus Christ, the “Sun of Salvation” or the “Sun of Justice.”

If this is the case, then we still must ask why the early Christians would have chosen the day December 25. According to this historical scenario, they were attempting to calculate the date of Jesus’ birth according to a certain other tradition: the notion, inherited from Jewish religious culture, that a great prophet was destined to die on the same calendar date as that of his birth or conception. 

Because of previous calculations involving the ancient Jewish lunar calendar and the date of the Passover, Christians in the West generally came to the conclusion that Jesus had died on March 25, and thus had been conceived on that day as well (which is when we celebrate, of course, the Feast of the Annunciation). Nine months later (December 25) would then have been the reasonable date to set for Jesus’ birth.

We might reasonable ask whether it would really matter if either historical scenario were somehow proven conclusively to be true. Even if the Church did arrange its liturgical calendar to “baptize” a pagan holiday (as it seems to have done with All Saints’ Day), the legitimacy of the principle has long been established: Whether it’s evergreen wreaths or wedding rings, the customs of pagan cultures can be fruitfully adopted by the Church, enriched with Christian meaning, and made her own.

For more information on this topic, see Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (Liturgical Press, 1991; click here).

Pagan Origins of Christmas?

Q. Is it true that the date on which we celebrate Christmas (December 25) has pagan origins?

A. The actual date of Jesus’ birth is long lost in the mists of ancient history. The fact that shepherds were “in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Lk 2:8) suggests that it was springtime. So why did the Church establish the feast of the Nativity on December 25, in the dead of winter?

 The common explanation today was propagated by an 18th-century German Protestant scholar who sought to prove that the Catholic Church was guilty of various “paganizations.” He claimed that, since a pagan Roman feast was celebrated on December 25 in ancient times to honor the sun, the Church decided to co-opt it by having Christians observe Christmas festivities instead. Nevertheless, this claim has been challenged by historians who believe that events actually developed the other way around.

This date, they insist, had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before the year 274, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before then. Rather, the pagan feast celebrating the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun,” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on December 25 of that year, had political purposes and served to give a pagan significance to a date already important to Roman Christians. Later, Christians in turn re-appropriated the pagan celebration to refer to the birth of Jesus Christ, the “Sun of Salvation” or the “Sun of Justice.”

If this is the case, then we still must ask why the early Christians would have chosen the day December 25. According to this historical scenario, they were attempting to calculate the date of Jesus’ birth according to a certain other tradition: the notion, inherited from Jewish religious culture, that a great prophet was destined to die on the same calendar date as that of his birth or conception. 

Because of previous calculations involving the ancient Jewish lunar calendar and the date of the Passover, Christians in the West generally came to the conclusion that Jesus had died on March 25, and thus had been conceived on that day as well (which is when we celebrate, of course, the Feast of the Annunciation). Nine months later (December 25) would then have been the reasonable date to set for Jesus’ birth.

We might reasonable ask whether it would really matter if either historical scenario were somehow proven conclusively to be true. Even if the Church did arrange its liturgical calendar to “baptize” a pagan holiday (as it seems to have done with All Saints’ Day), the legitimacy of the principle has long been established: Whether it’s evergreen wreaths or wedding rings, the customs of pagan cultures can be fruitfully adopted by the Church, enriched with Christian meaning, and made her own.

For more information on this topic, see Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (Liturgical Press, 1991; click here).

Outlawed Christmas?

Q. Is it true that the Puritans outlawed Christmas? If so, why would they do such a thing?

A. Yes. When Puritans gained political control in an area, they usually ended up banning the celebration of Christmas there (e.g., in Scotland, in 1562; England, 1644; Massachusetts, 1659). In some locales, the people were actually required to work on the day. They had several motivations for the ban.

 First, Christmas, which literally means “Christ’s Mass,” was seen as a “popish” celebration, an unwelcome reminder of the ancient calendar of holy days observed by the Catholic Church. Though many Protestants, especially those in the Church of England, also celebrated the day enthusiastically, the Puritans sought a more radical break from the past. They viewed Christmas as yet one more Catholic practice that should be discarded from the Reformation tradition.

 Second, the strict Sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”) orientation of the Puritans led them to reject the holiday. Christ’s nativity, though reported in the Bible, is not associated in the biblical text with the date of December 25. (In recent times it’s been widely believed that the Church established the feast on that day, not on biblical grounds, but in order to co-opt a pagan festival. However, this notion has been challenged by some historians; see the Q&A for tomorrow.) 

In fact, the Puritans didn’t seek to celebrate Christmas on any day of the year. After all, Scripture doesn’t explicitly command a feast to celebrate the occasion. (Their position raises a good question to pose to friends who believe in a strict Sola scriptura. If all our religious practices must authorized by Scripture, then how can we justify celebrating Christmas?

 Finally, the Puritans opposed Christmas celebrations because the day had become for many merrymakers an annual occasion of drunkenness, lewdness, vandalism and brawling. I have to admit that I feel some sympathy for this concern. We certainly don’t honor Jesus by turning His birthday into an excuse for flagrant sinning (nor for shopping orgies, for that matter).

Nevertheless, we can be glad that in this particular matter the Puritans did not prevail. The fact that we don’t know the actual calendar date of Our Lord’s nativity shouldn’t keep us from celebrating His birthday. I, for one, am delighted to have such a joyous occasion — with all its festive carols, candies, candles and colored lights — to brighten the darkness of what might otherwise be a dreary time of year. Wassail!

Blue Advent?

Q. I noticed a Catholic Church decorated for Advent with a blue banner, large blue stars hanging on the wall and a blue Advent wreath with 3 blue candles and 1 pink candle. The altar cloth was white, and the priest wore a purple chasuble. I heard the blue symbolizes the night sky.

Other Catholic churches have no blue. Could you elaborate on the new blue?

A. In modern times some parishes have replaced the traditional purple furnishings of Advent with blue ones, with various reasons given for the change. Nevertheless, purple has an important, specific and ancient dual meaning: It is the color both of penance and of royalty.

It’s not surprising, then, that the Church instructs us not to tamper with this and similar aspects of our liturgical customs. When we do, we lose the intended significance of the custom, and we distance ourselves needlessly from earlier generations of the faithful who trusted the wisdom of the Church enough to maintain the tradition faithfully.

 The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) provides the Church’s authoritative rules for celebrating Mass. Here’s what it has to say about the matter:

“346. As to the color of sacred vestments, the traditional usage is to be retained: namely, … Violet or purple is used in Advent and Lent. … Rose [pink] may be used, where it is the practice, on Gaudete Sunday (Third Sunday of Advent) and on Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent).”

Blue, a color traditionally associated with Our Lady, is prescribed as the liturgical color in Spain and some Latin American countries for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is also used for other Marian feasts in some Eastern Catholic churches. But nowhere is blue prescribed in the Roman Rite in the U.S. for Advent or for any other time.

For the full text of the GIRM, click here.

“Christmas” vs. “Nativity”

Q. The origin of the name for Christmas in languages such as Spanish (Navidad) and Italian (Natale) is obvious, since these words mean “nativity,” referring of course to the birth of Our Lord. So where do we get the name “Christmas” in English?

A. Our English word “Christmas” comes from the Old English Cristes Mæsse, “Christ’s Mass.” The earliest recorded use of the term comes from the year 1038.

 The Spanish Navidad, Italian Natale and French Noël all ultimately derive from the Latin Dies Natalis, “Natal Day” (or birthday).

Annunciation

Q. Why does the Annunciation not command greater attention?

A. Alban Butler’s “Lives of the Saints” states: “Apart from the birth and resurrection of our Lord, and … Pentecost, the primitive calendar … seems only to have paid formal honor to the birthdays of its martyrs.” The early Church considered Christmas less important than Easter, Pentecost or Epiphany. 

However, once the liturgical date for Christ’s birth was established, in the fourth century, a date to celebrate His conception was easy to calculate, and a liturgy for the day followed. March 25 falls during Lent (or, more rarely, during Easter Week), so celebrations of the Annunciation have always been subdued.  To avoid this, Butler writes, some places celebrated the Annunciation during Advent.

In the present Roman calendar, liturgical celebrations of the Annunciation parallel those of Christmas. Both are solemnities, and the Mass of the Annunciation, despite its falling in Lent, is honored with the Gloria. On both days the faithful genuflect during the Creed at the words, “and became man.” 

March 25 enjoys an interesting history. Early Christians (among them St. Augustine) believed it to be the date of Jesus’ conception and His crucifixion. Until 1752, when English-speaking countries (including North America) embraced the Gregorian calendar, the day – called Lady Day – marked the beginning of the civil year.

The Date of Christ’s Birth

Q. Was Jesus actually born on Dec. 25? A non-Catholic friend of mine told me that it is not his real birth date, and that the Catholic Church chose this date to replace the pagan festival with a Christian holy day. Could you please clarify this?

A. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life” (No.  2177), and adds, “Also to be observed are the day of the Nativity of Our Lord.”

The date of Christmas has a complicated and interesting history. The date of the Savior’s birth is not mentioned in the Bible, but scholars feel Jesus was probably not born on Dec. 25, as the shepherds mentioned in the Gospel would suffer “living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Lk 2:8). The likeliest reason, perhaps, for choosing Dec. 25 is the Church’s wish to “Christianize” an existing, several-day long pagan holiday that ended with a tribute to the “Invincible Sun,” a title similar to many given to Jesus.

Consulting an almanac will reveal the sun sets later beginning Dec. 13; it begins to rise earlier on Jan. 6 (in the Northern Hemisphere). The Church celebrates the feast of St. Lucy (whose name means ‘light” on the former date; the latter, of course, is Epiphany, the “12th Day of Christmas.” Dec. 25, the birthday of the “Light of the World,” falls between these two additional feasts of light.

Why Christmas Trees?

Q. Why do we have Christmas trees? How did the custom originate, since it’s not in the Bible and I’ve never heard about the custom in the ancient Church?

A. Though Christians in our culture tend to take Christmas trees for granted, a child may sometimes ask the obvious question: What does a tree have to do with Jesus’ birthday?

We don’t really know for sure how this holiday tradition began. What we do know is that about 500 years ago, Christmas trees began showing up in homes throughout Germany. Small fir trees were decorated with apples, wafers, nuts, dates, pretzels, paper flowers, and sugar ornaments, which children collected as gifts on Christmas Day. Over a period of several centuries, the Christbaum, or “Christ tree,” spread to other nations, including the United States.

However the first Christmas tree came to be, today it has become a beautiful symbol of the Nativity. Like the evergreen branches, God’s love never withers. The lights remind us that Christ is the light of the world. Bells, a sign of joy, make us think of church bells calling us to worship Him.

An angel atop the tree points to the angels that announced His birth. A star on the highest branch represents the Star of Bethlehem, which guided the Wise Men. Gold-colored ornaments remind us of the gold they brought to Jesus. Candy canes look like a shepherd’s crook; they recall that shepherds visited the stable, and that Jesus is the Good Shepherd.

Why, then, do we have Christmas trees today? Because they help us remember who Jesus is and why He was born.

Nativity scene blessings

Q. With all the controversy over Nativity scenes, surely they should have greater prominence in the Catholic home. Is there any service for the blessing of a Nativity scene in the home -- especially one that could be used by the whole family? Why are there animals in the manger scene, when they are not mentioned in the Gospels?

A. The Church provides a formal rite for the blessing of a Nativity scene in the home. The official Book of Blessings provides two forms of the dedication of the Nativity scene. No. 1545 of this volume states: "When the manger is set up in the home, it is appropriate that it be blessed by a parent or another family member." There is also a form of this rite in the Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers. [Ed. note: Here's one from The Catholic Family Prayer Book]

The official rites for the blessing of the Nativity scene might be passed out through the parish's religious education program or in Catholic schools before Christmas. The children could be put in charge of organizing the event in every home and in encouraging the parents to say the central act of blessing. The various intercessions provided could be said by the various members of the household.

Among the reasons that animals appear in the Nativity scene traditionally are that the words of the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Habakkuk are taken to mean that the Messiah would be born in the midst of animals in a manger.

Lighting Advent Candles

 Q. My recollection of past years is that the Advent candle was lit during the Mass. At our church the Advent candle was already lit when the Mass celebrant walked up the aisle to the altar. Which is correct?

A. There are no rubics regarding the Advent wreath at Mass. You can have one in your church or not, and the candles can be lit at any time. It should not be placed on the altar, and the choice of color for candles is traditionally three purple and one pink, or four red candles

Origins of “Silent Night”?

Q. What are the origins of the popular Christmas carol “Silent Night”?

A. The six-verse lyrics of “Silent Night” were composed in 1816 by Father Josef Mohr (1792-1848), the pastor of St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Obendorf, Austria.

We don’t known for certain why he wrote the song. But we do know that on Christmas Eve in 1818, he presented the poem to the parish organist, Franz Xavier Gruber, asking Gruber to compose an accompanying melody for two solo voices with choir and guitar accompaniment.

The song was first performed during Mass on that Christmas Eve. Gruber and the parish choir sang, while Father Mohr accompanied them on guitar. The tune became popular immediately.

Toward the end of his life several decades later, Father Mohr reportedly said that composing this Christmas carol was one of the “most treasured moments” of his life. Today the “Silent Night Chapel” marks the place where the beloved song was composed, and a memorial of the two men who composed the song is held there each year. Here's more about the history of Christmas carols

The Truth About Santa Claus?

Q. I’ve had a number of disagreements with my friends, Catholic and non-Catholic, about what we should tell our children about Santa Claus. What do you think?

A. This particular debate never seems to end. Is Santa Claus a bit of harmless fun, or a lie that turns kids' attention away from Jesus? What should we tell our youngsters about St. Nick?

Why not tell them the truth? I don’t mean a somber lecture about how reindeer can’t really fly. I mean the story of the real, historical St. Nicholas—a man whose life pointed beautifully to Jesus.
Born in Asia Minor more than sixteen centuries ago, Nicholas was a bishop who gave his life to serve others. He worked miracles and brought many people to faith in Christ. He also shared his wealth with the poor and took special care of children.

We don’t know much more for sure than that, though legends abound. But this much is certain: St. Nicholas shone so brightly with the love of Jesus that the Church has never been able to forget him.

Over the years, some Christians honored him by dressing up like him and giving children gifts. As his fame spread across many countries, his costume and his name took many forms. The Dutch called him “Santa Claus” and introduced him to America. In our country, the red suit, sleigh and reindeer were added to his portrait.

Whatever we may think of these more recent notions of St. Nicholas, they shouldn’t keep us from telling our children the truth about a great servant of God. If we share with them the story of the real St. Nicholas, we won’t be turning their attention away from Jesus. Instead, we’ll be showing them how the Child of the manger can shine even now through a heart that’s devoted to Him. Read the story of St. Nicholas's birth

What About St. Nick?

Q. What should I tell my children about Santa Claus? We have arguments in my extended family every year about the matter.

A. It’s a perennial debate among Christians: Is Santa Claus a bit of harmless fun? Or is the tale actually a lie that turns kids’ attention away from Jesus? What should we tell our youngsters about St. Nick?

Why not just tell them the truth? That’s what we did with our children. I don’t mean a somber lecture about how reindeer can’t really fly. I mean the story of the real, historical St. Nicholas — a man whose life pointed beautifully to Jesus. You might tell them something like this:

Born in Asia Minor more than sixteen centuries ago, Nicholas was a bishop who gave his life to serve others. He worked miracles and brought many people to faith in Christ. He also shared his wealth with the poor and took special care of children.

We don’t know much more for sure than that, though legends abound. But this much is certain: St. Nicholas shone so brightly with the love of Jesus that Christians came to honor him all over the world.

Over the years, some honored him by dressing up like him and giving children gifts. As his fame spread across many countries, his costume and his name took many forms. The Dutch called him “Santa Claus” and introduced him to America. In our country, the red suit, sleigh and reindeer were added to his portrait.

Whatever we may think of these more recent notions of St. Nicholas, they shouldn’t keep us from telling our children the truth about a great servant of God. If we share with them the story of the real St. Nicholas, we won’t be turning their attention away from Jesus. Instead, we’ll be showing them how the Child of the manger can shine even now through a heart that’s devoted to Him.

Immaculate Conception Obligation?

Q. I’m confused. The feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), which is of course a holy day of obligation, sometimes falls on a Saturday. So are the feast and its obligation transferred to Sunday when this happens?

A. The feast of the Immaculate Conception is the patronal feast of the United States. So in this country it’s always a holy day of obligation, even when it falls on Monday or Saturday. However, when Dec. 8 falls on a Sunday (as it did in 2002), the feast cannot replace the greater feast of the Second Sunday in Advent. In this case, the feast itself is transferred to the next day (Monday), but the obligation is not transferred.

Immaculate Conception vs. Virgin Birth

Q. The Immaculate Conception. Isn’t this often confused with the Virgin Birth?

A. Each year at Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, my pastor asks those assembled for a show of hands: How many, he says, think that the term “Immaculate Conception” refers to Jesus’ miraculous origins?

Admittedly, the congregation always includes a number of visitors who may not be Catholic; our Cathedral is magnificent and attracts many thousands of tourists each year. In any case, a number of hands typically go up. Then my pastor gently explains, once again, the difference between “Immaculate Conception” and “Virgin Birth.”

The “Immaculate Conception” refers not to Our Lord, but to Our Lady. In the Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of Dec. 8, 1854, Pope Piux IX pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”

After our first parents sinned and fell from their original state of perfect righteousness, they passed on to their descendants the resulting loss (or defect) of righteousness. This common corruption of our human nature is called “original sin.”

By a special act of divine grace, Our Lady was conceived, through the union of her natural father and mother, without this defect of righteousness, which has afflicted all other humans except for her divine Son.

The Virgin Birth, on the other hand, refers to Our Lord’s being brought into the world by a woman, Our Lady, who had never known a man sexually. He was conceived, not only without original sin, but also without a human father.

St. Joseph

Q. I have a great admiration for the role of St. Joseph in the life of Jesus and Mary. There is so little we know about him. Do we know where he is buried? If not, have archaeologists tried to discover where he may have been buried? 

Did Mary have any sisters? I thought I had read that her mother had a daughter years before Mary was born.

A. I certainly share your admiration for St. Joseph, whom I took as my personal patron at Confirmation when I entered the Catholic Church. I knew I could depend on his assistance and his example as a husband and father, and he’s been faithful to help me in so many ways.

 I’m sad to say that we know very little about St. Joseph’s earthly life. The Gospel of St. Matthew tells us about his genealogy and his familiar role in the events that surrounded Jesus’ conception and birth, plus the family’s flight into Egypt (Matthew chapters 1 and 2). The Gospel of St. Luke provides more details about these events (with Joseph’s role largely implied), adding the account of Jesus’ circumcision and presentation in the temple and the story from twelve years later telling how Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple talking with the elders (Luke chapters 1 and 2).

Other than these facts from Scripture, we really have no reliable sources of information about Joseph’s life. Not surprisingly, several books appeared in ancient times that claimed to fill in the gaps of our knowledge about him; among these are the so-called “Infancy Gospel of James,” the “Pseudo-Matthew,” the “Gospel of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary,” the “Story of Joseph the Carpenter” and the “Life of the Virgin and Death of Joseph.” These texts make for entertaining reading, but it’s impossible at this point to know whether they contain any actual historical data about Our Lady’s husband.

According to the “Story of Joseph the Carpenter,” the saint died at the age of 111, on July 20, in the year A.D. 18 or 19 (when Jesus would have been a young man). On the other hand, St. Epiphanius reported that Joseph was 90 when he died, and the Venerable Bede, writing much later, claims that the saint was buried in “the Valley of Josaphat,” a place whose location is debated. (It could be a name for a valley just outside the walls of Jerusalem where many Jews have been buried since ancient times.)

In spite of these claims, we really don’t know when or where Joseph died. He almost certainly passed away before the time of Jesus’ public ministry, since Scripture doesn’t speak of his continuing role in Jesus’ life during that time. It seems likely that he died and was buried at Nazareth. In the meantime, no archaeologists have attempted to find his tomb, given the absence of data about its possible location.

As for whether Mary had a sister: The so-called “Infancy Gospel of James,” a second-century document noted above, says that because Mary’s mother was barren, it took a divine miracle for Mary to be conceived, and it tells of no siblings born after her. But again, we don’t know whether anything in this or the other books actually took place. (For the full document, read here.)

Did the Roman Census Take Place?

Q. I have heard it said recently that the account in Luke’s Gospel about Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem for the census (see 2:1-5) didn’t happen. The speaker said that it didn’t make sense for the Romans to conduct the census that way. He said this as an assertion, but provided no historical source to back it up. Are you aware of a credible historical source other than Luke that says how the Romans conducted the census, and in particular the census in question?

A. The speaker you refer to is obviously unaware of Roman policy in this matter. We know from various sources that the Roman government ordinarily followed local customs in carrying out its decrees. A census in Palestine would have followed the Jewish practice of summoning each householder to his birthplace to be enrolled in the census.

Joseph had to travel about a hundred miles to Bethlehem, the place of origin of the family of David. The birth of Mary’s son was imminent. He could not leave her behind; not only because of his love for her, but also because as foster father of the Incarnate Son of God it was fitting that he be present at the birth of Christ.

Luke 2:2 tells us that the census was taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Though Quirinius was later governor of Syria, Saturninus was governor of Syria at the time of Jesus’ birth. Perhaps at the time of the census Quirinius was in charge of carrying it out, under the authority of Saturninus. Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225) wrote that at the time of Christ’ birth a census was in progress when Saturninus was governor of Syria. Both Tertullian and Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165) state that in their time the records of this census still existed in the Roman archives.

The record outside the New Testament is clear. There was a census at the time of Jesus’ birth. It required Joseph and Mary to go to the place of origin of Joseph’s family. The only question is whether Quirinius was acting as governor for Saturninus in conducting the census. He certainly could have been. St. Luke says he was.

Jesus’ Genealogy?

Q. When the Gospel of Matthew speaks about the genealogy of Jesus, it says that He is the son of David and son of Abraham, understood to be their descendant. But Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and is the Son of God the Father, so Jesus does not have a biological father. Is that correct? Is the genealogy of the Blessed Mother ever considered in the genealogy of Jesus?

A. It is correct to say that Jesus is the Son of God the Father and does not have a biological father. But look at the pattern in Matthew’s genealogy (see 1:1-17): so-and-so the father of so-and-so the father of so-and-so, and so on. When the genealogy comes to the name of Joseph, however, it breaks the pattern.

Matthew 1:16 speaks of Joseph not as the father of Jesus but as “the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah.” In the Jewish tradition, as the adopted son of Joseph, Jesus would receive all rights of inheritance and would be regarded as standing in succession eventually from Abraham.

Now go back to Abraham. In Genesis 12:3, God tells Abraham that through him “all the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.” That promise comes to sharper focus in Genesis 17:6, when God tells Abraham that “kings shall stem from you.”

To David, descendant of Abraham, God promises, “Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever” (2 Sm 7:16). Matthew’s genealogy shows that through His adoptive father Jesus shares in this line of descent, and this is His basic Messianic credential.

With regard to Our Lady’s genealogy: As a Jew, the Blessed Mother was herself a descendant of Abraham, making her Son, Jesus, a descendant of Abraham as well. In addition, St. Paul says that Jesus Christ “was descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom 1:3). Since Our Lord’s flesh came from Mary, this seems to be saying that she too was descended from David, and Marian tradition has often spoken of her that way — for example, the Marian title “Tower of David.” We also know from Numbers 36:3-4 that to safeguard a tribe’s inheritance, a daughter of Israel was supposed to marry only within her own tribe.

Some biblical commentators read Luke 1:26-27 in this light: “In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God . . . to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.” These commentators insist that the last clause — “of the house of David” — does not refer to Joseph, but rather to Mary, who is the main character in the narrative.

To render this meaning, we could punctuate the passage this way: “In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God … to a virgin (betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph) of the house of David.” Unfortunately, there is no punctuation in the original Greek to help clarify the meaning.

Though the genealogy found at the beginning of Matthew is identified as that of St. Joseph, the 15th-century Dominican historian Annius of Viterbo suggested that St. Luke’s genealogy gives the pedigree of Mary. (St. Augustine had alluded to this opinion a thousand years before.)

Luke 3:23 can be interpreted to imply that Heli was the father of Mary: “Jesus . . . being the son (as was supposed of Joseph) of Heli”; or “Jesus . . . being the son of Joseph, as was supposed, the son of Heli”; or even “Jesus . . . being as was supposed the son of Joseph, who was [the son-in-law] of Heli.”

According to these explanations, though Mary’s name is not explicitly mentioned, it is implied, since Jesus would have been the son of Heli through Mary. (Again, the Greek has no punctuation to help us out here.)

Many scholars reject this interpretation of the text. But interestingly enough, we might note that the name “Joachim” could be a variation of “Heli,” or “Eliachim,” substituting one Divine name (“Yahweh”) for the other (“Eli, Elohim”). And, of course, the ancient tradition — first recorded in a second-century text called the Protoevangelium — is that Mary’s father was named “Joachim.” It’s an intriguing possibility.

Boxing Day

Q. What exactly is Boxing Day, and how did it get its name?

A. Boxing Day coincides with the feast of St. Stephen (though it may be moved to the following week when December 26 falls on a Saturday or Sunday). Boxing Day has its origins in England and is a public holiday in several English-speaking countries (the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, Australia and others), but it is unknown to most people in the United States.

 Apparently, the day was originally associated with the giving of gifts to those who were in some way “below” the giver in social class. (Presumably, gifts to social “equals” were given on Christmas Day itself.) But the precise reason why this practice came to be called “boxing” is debated.

 Some historians say that, since servants of wealthy families had to work on Christmas, they were given the day after Christmas as a holiday. As they prepared to leave work, their employers gave them boxes of food or other gifts.

 A different theory is that the “poor box” kept in churches, in which parishioners placed coins as alms for the poor, were opened this day and distributed to the needy.

 Still others say the name refers to the “Christmas box” — a clay box kept in artisan shops, in which apprentices, masters, customers and visitors would place donations of coins (much as we might put coins in a piggy bank). On the day after Christmas, the box was shattered and the donations were shared among the workers of the shop as a kind of holiday bonus.

 Today, Boxing Day is known primarily as a shopping holiday in Canada, when drastically reduced sale prices make it the largest sales day of the year. In this regard, it could be compared to the so-called “Black Friday” in the U.S. on the day after Thanksgiving.

Magi = Legend?

Q. The media reported that Dr. Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury (England), declared in a radio interview that St. Matthew’s account of the Magi visiting Christ is only a “legend.” He went on to “debunk” other aspects of the scene commonly depicted in Nativity scenes. What is he talking about?

A. I read those reports. If he was quoted accurately, then I’m dismayed that such a prominent leader of a Christian denomination could cause scandal in this way. There are certainly biblical scholars who insist that the Magi story is only a legend; in fact, if you look hard enough, you can find a biblical scholar to attempt a “debunking” of nearly every imaginable detail of Scripture.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church teaches that we can rely on the historicity of the Gospel accounts. Here’s what the Second Vatican Council said about the matter in Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), sec. 19 (emphasis added):

“Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels … whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1). … The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who “themselves from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (see Luke 1:2-4).” 

 Keep in mind, of course, that several of the details in the popular description and depiction of the Nativity have no basis in Scripture or ancient Tradition. Rowan accurately identified some of those details: the number of Magi; their identification as “kings”; the snow; the presence nearby of particular animals when Christ was born. As for the date of December 25, see the question I posted for Christmas Day.

Twelve Days of Christmas?

Developed from an English hymn in 1645 called “In Those Twelve Days.” Each number is a symbol for a truth of the Faith and was often used as a teaching tool.

One partridge in a pear tree = The one true God
Two turtle doves = The two Testaments, Old and New
Three French hens = The three Persons of the Trinity
Four colley (or calling) birds = The Four Evangelists
Five golden rings = The five books of the Pentateuch (in the Bible)
Six geese a-laying = The six jars of water at Cana (Jesus’ first miracle)
Seven swans a-swimming = The Seven Sacraments
Eight maids a-milking = The Eight Beatitudes
Nine drummers drumming = The nine choirs of angels
Ten pipers piping = The Ten Commandments
Eleven ladies dancing = The eleven faithful apostles (or the eleven stars seen in the Old Testament)
Twelve lords a-leaping = The Twelve Tribes of Israel (or the Twelve Apostles)

“Twelfth Night”?

Q. What exactly is the holiday known as “Twelfth Night”?

A. In most of the Western Church, the “Twelve Days of Christmas” are the 12 days beginning with Christmas Day itself and concluding with the vigil of Epiphany on the traditional calendar. (The traditional observance of Epiphany was on January 6, so today, January 5, would be the last of the 12 days). Epiphany, of course, honors the visit of the Wise Men (also called “Magi” or “Kings”) to worship the baby Jesus (see Mt 2:1–12).

We should note that in some traditions, the “Twelve Days of Christmas” begin instead on the evening of December 25 with the following day, December 26, considered the “First Day” of Christmas. In these traditions, the 12 days thus include Epiphany itself (January 6).

The merrymaking celebration called “Twelfth Night” (that is, the twelfth night of the Twelve Days of Christmas) traditionally took place throughout parts of Western Europe on the evening of January 5, the vigil of Epiphany. It was observed by feasting, plays, and all kinds of tomfoolery. Some of its distinctive customs apparently had their roots in celebrations that pre-dated the coming of the Christian faith to that area of the world.

The customary fare for Twelfth Night feasting in England featured “wassail,” an ale-based drink mixed with honey and spices. It was served in large bowls passed among family members and friends with the greeting “Wassail!” which comes from the old English phrase “Waes hael,” meaning “Be well!”

Also important for Twelfth Night celebrations was the “Kings’ Cake,” in honor of the visit of the “Kings” who came to worship Our Lord. A bean, coin or little figure of the Christ Child was baked into the cake, and then slices of the cake were distributed. Whoever found the object in his or her piece was chosen to rule as “king” or “queen” over the festivities.

Since the Mardi Gras season traditionally begins with Epiphany, this cake became part of those celebrations in French homes, including those in the Gulf Coast region of the U.S.

A final note: William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, Or What You Will (written c. 1601) was written to be performed on this holiday.

Christmas season

Q. I love Christmas and wondered when the Christmas season in the Church officially ends. Is it with Epiphany?

A. The Church recognizes a hierarchy in its liturgical celebrations. The Catechism of the Catholic Chruch teaches that the Easter Triduum “fills the whole liturgical year with its brilliance” (No. 1168). The General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar reminds us, “Next to the yearly celebration of the Paschal Mystery [that is, Easter], the Church holds most sacred the memorial of Christ’s birth and early manifestations. This is the purpose of the Christmas season.”

Among the “early manifestations” of Jesus, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Epiphany, which recalls the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, and the Baptism of the Lord, when God’s voice identifies Jesus as His beloved son.

In the United States, Epiphany is not a holy day of obligation, so the solemnity is celebrated on the Sunday between Jan. 2 and Jan. 8, which usually displaces Epiphany as the (literal) twelfth day of Christmas. However, the Baptism of the Lord (not Epiphany) brings the days of Christmas to their close. Because this feast is celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany, the Christmas season actually includes seven more days than if it ended with Epiphany — good news, indeed, to those who wish to prolong this joyous season.

An old hymn celebrates the connection between the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord, proclaiming: “The wise men travel from afar, / they follow well that guiding star; / by light, unfading light they seek, / by gift proclaiming God the meek.…Unto the pure and cleansing stream / then came the heavenly Lamb supreme. / No sin did he bring there that day, / but cleaning us, took ours away.”