History of Christmas: The Star

23 12 2011

This is the final entry from my most knowledgeable friend Bill Petro on the history of Christmas.  Enjoy.

The Star of Bethlehem has puzzled scholars for centuries. Some have skeptically dismissed the phenomenon as a myth, a mere literary device to call attention to the importance of the Nativity. Others have argued that the star was miraculously placed there to guide the Magi and is therefore beyond all natural explanation. Most authorities, however, take a middle course which looks for some historical explanation for the Christmas star, and several interesting theories have been offered.

The Greek term for “star” in the Gospel account, is the word “aster” which can mean any luminous heavenly body, including a comet, meteor, nova, or planet (wandering star). The Chinese have more exact and more complete astronomical records than the Near East, particularly in their tabulations of comets and novae. In 1871, the astronomer John Williams published his authoritative list of comets derived from Chinese annuals. Comet No. 52 on the Williams list appeared for some seventy days in March-April of 5 B.C. near the constellation Capricorn, and would have been visible in both the Far and Near East. As each night wore on, of course, the comet would seem to have moved westward across the southern sky. The time is also very appropriate. This could indeed have been the Wise Men’s astral marker. Comet No. 53 on the Williams list is a tailless comet, which could well have been a nova, as Williams admitted. No. 53 appeared in March-April of 4 B.C. — a year after its predecessor — in the area of the constellation Aquila, which was also visible all over the East. Was this, perhaps the star that reappeared to the Magi once Herod had directed them to Bethlehem in Matthew 2:9? Comets do not display all the characteristics described in the full Nativity story. A planet or planets seems more likely.

The astronomer Johannes Kepler noted in the early 17th century that every 805 years, the planets Jupiter and Saturn come into extraordinary repeated conjunction, with Mars joining the configuration a year later. Since Kepler, astronomers have computed that for ten months in 7 B.C., Jupiter and Saturn traveled very close to each other in the night sky, and in May, September, and December of that year, they were conjoined. Mars joined the configuration in February of 6 B.C. The astrological interpretation of such a conjunction would have told the Magi much, if, as seems probable, they shared the astrological lore of the area. Jupiter and Saturn met each other in Pisces, the Fishes.

In ancient astrology, the giant planet Jupiter was styled the “King’s Planet,” for it represented the highest god and ruler of the universe: Marduk to the Babylonians; Zeus to the Greeks; Jupiter to the Romans. The ringed planet Saturn was deemed the shield or defender of Palestine, while the constellation of Pisces, which was also associated with Syria and Palestine, represented epochal events and crises. So Jupiter encountering Saturn in the sign of the Fishes would have meant that a divine and cosmic ruler was to appear in Palestine at a culmination of history.

Meanwhile, new research on the star based on recently available astronomy software and historical research on 1st century Jewish historian Josephus‘ manuscripts is being conducted and collected at www.bethlehemstar.net.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

History of Christmas: The Music

19 12 2011

I am posting my friend Bill Petro’s “History of the Holidays” blog on Advent as our guest blog this month.  Bill’s insights into the subject of history has been a blessing in my life for years.

Music early became a marked feature of the Christmas season. But the first chants, litanies, and hymns were in Latin and too theological for popular use. The 13th century found the rise of the carol written in the vernacular under the influence of Francis of Assisi. The word “carol” comes from the Greek word choraulein. A choraulein was an ancient circle dance performed to flute music. In the Middle Ages, the English combined circle dances with singing and called them carols. Later, the word “carol” came to mean a song in which a religious topic is treated in a style that is familiar or festive. From Italy, it passed to France and Germany, and later to England, everywhere retaining its simplicity, fervor, and mirthfulness. Music in itself has become one of the greatest tributes to Christmas, and includes some of the noblest compositions of the great musicians.

Interestingly enough, during the British Commonwealth government under Oliver Cromwell, the British Parliament prohibited the practice of singing Christmas carols as pagan and sinful. Its pagan roots in the 13th century and its overly “democratic” 14th century influences made it an unsuitable activity for the general public it was thought and it was to be mandated so, by the Commonwealth government of 1647. Puritans at this time disapproved as well of the celebration of Christmas, and did not close shop on that day, but continued to work through December 25. This was true too in New England in America, where in Boston one could be fined five shillings for demonstrating Christmas spirit. During this brief interlude in English history, during which there was no monarch, such activity by the populace was to remain illegal. But this activity was prohibited only as long as the Commonwealth survived, and in 1660, when King Charles II restored the Stuarts to the throne, the public was once again able to practice the singing of Christmas carols.

No musical work is more closely associated with the Christmas season than “Messiah” by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759). It may come as something of a surprise that it had nothing to do with the Christmas season when it was composed. It was initially performed for Lent, but since Handel’s death this music is usually performed during Advent. Incidentally, the full title of the work is merely “Messiah” although it is widely but inaccurately referred to as “The Messiah.” The composer was German by birth but became a naturalized Englishman in 1726. He wrote “Messiah” in the summer of 1741 in his characteristically quick 24 days, and his first performance was the following spring in Dublin. “Messiah” is usually attributed to have been originally done at Christ Church Cathedral, but that is only half true.

While the Christ Church choir performed it, along with the choir from St. Patrick’s Cathedral located three blocks away (pictured at right), the actual performance was done at Neal’s Music Hall on Fishamble Street half a block away from Christ Church on April 13 (pictured below.) For a while, Handel lived about a mile away, north and across the River Liffey. The music hall no longer exists, but the plaque below commemorates its location. The premiere was a benefit for prisoners in jail for debt as well as for a hospital and an infirmary. Enough money was raised to free 142 unfortunate debtors. It premiered in London a year later, but under the name “A Sacred Oratorio.”

– Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian


History of Christmas: The Year

9 12 2011

What year was Jesus really born?  I am using my friend Bill Petro’s “History of the Holidays” blog on Advent as our guest blog this month…

It’s obvious that Jesus was born on December 25, A.D. 1, right? Wrong. What we do know is that Herod the Great (who killed all the babies in Bethlehem younger than 2 years of age) died in the Spring of 4 B.C. according to the Jewish historian, Josephus, and the king was quite alive during the visit of the Wise Men (Magi) in the Nativity story told in the Gospel of Matthew. So Jesus would have to have been born before this time, anywhere from 7 B.C to 4 B.C. (Before Christ, or before himself!)

Why is there a gap of this much time in our modern calendar? We owe this to a Roman monk-mathematician-astronomer named Dionysis Exeguus, known to his friends as Dennis the Little. During the 6th century A.D. he unwittingly committed what has become history’s greatest numerical error as it relates to the calendar. As he endeavored to reform the Western calendar to center around Jesus’ birth, he erroneously placed the date of the Nativity in the year 753 “from the founding of Rome” (753 a.u.c. or Ab Urbe Condita), even though Herod died only 749 years after the founding of the city of Rome. The cumulative effect of Dionysis’ calendar error, which is the same calendar we use today, was to give the correct traditional date for the founding of Rome, but one that is at least 4 to 7 years off for the birth of Christ.

Did you celebrate the Y2K change of Millennium in 1997?

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian