A Birth to Be Remembered
‘Unto you is born this day a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.’—Luke 2:11, “King James Version.”
SOME two thousand years ago, a woman in the town of Bethlehem gave birth to a male child. Few local residents realized the significance of this birth. But some shepherds, who were spending the night with their flocks in the field, saw a multitude of angels and heard them sing: “Glory in the heights above to God, and upon earth peace among men of goodwill.”—Luke 2:8-14.
The shepherds then located Mary and her husband, Joseph, in a stable, just as the angels had indicated they would. Mary, who named the child Jesus, had laid him in a manger, or feeding trough, in the stable. (Luke 1:31; 2:12) Now, two thousand years later, about a third of all mankind professes to follow Jesus Christ. And the events surrounding his birth form the basis of a story that has likely been told more often than any other in human history.
Spain, a country with a strong Catholic tradition and a flair for traditional fiestas, has developed many ways to commemorate that unique night in Bethlehem.
The Spanish Christmas
Since the 13th century, the Nativity scene has been one of the most familiar aspects of Spanish celebrations. Many families make a small representation of the manger in which Jesus was laid. Clay figures depict the shepherds and the Magi (or “three kings”), as well as Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Larger Nativity scenes with almost life-size figures are often set up near town halls during the Christmas period. Francis of Assisi apparently initiated this custom in Italy to direct people’s attention to the Gospel account of Jesus’ birth. Franciscan monks later popularized it in Spain and many other countries.
The Magi play a prominent role in Spanish Christmas celebrations, much like Santa Claus in other countries. The Magi supposedly give presents to Spanish children on January 6, Día de Reyes (Day of the Kings), as the Magi, according to popular belief, brought presents to the newborn Jesus. Few people are aware, however, that the Gospel account does not mention how many Magi visited Jesus. Rather than being kings, they are more accurately identified as astrologers.a Moreover, after the visit of the Magi, Herod killed all boys in Bethlehem “from two years of age and under” in his attempt to murder Jesus. That implies that their visit took place quite a while after Jesus’ birth.—Matthew 2:11, 16.
Since the 12th century, some Spanish towns have put on a live theatrical representation of Jesus’ birth, including the visit of the shepherds to Bethlehem and later that of the Magi. Nowadays, most Spanish cities host a cabalgata, or parade, every January 5, during which the “three kings” ride on elaborate floats through the city center, distributing candies to onlookers. Traditional Christmas decorations and villancicos (carols) serve to enliven the festive occasion.
Most Spanish families like to have a special supper on Christmas Eve (December 24). The traditional food includes such items as turrón (sweets made from almond and honey), marzipan, dried fruits, roast lamb, and seafood. Family members, even those who live far away, may make a special effort to come together for this occasion. During another traditional meal, on January 6, the family eats a roscón de reyes, a ring-shaped cake of “the Kings” that has a sorpresa (small figure) hidden inside. A similar custom in Roman times enabled a slave whose portion contained the hidden item to be “king” for a day.
“The Happiest and Busiest Time of the Year”
Whatever local customs have developed, Christmas has now become the world’s principal festive occasion. The World Book Encyclopedia describes Christmas as “the happiest and busiest time of the year for millions of Christians and some non-Christians throughout the world.” Is that a good thing?
Clearly, the birth of Christ was a historic event. The fact that angels heralded it as a harbinger of “peace among men of goodwill” clearly testifies to its significance.
Nevertheless, “in the early days of Christianity, the Nativity was not celebrated as a festival,” points out Spanish journalist Juan Arias. If this is the case, where did the Christmas celebration come from? What is the best way to remember the birth and life of Jesus? In the following article, you will find the answers to those questions.
a La Sagrada Escritura—Texto y comentario por profesores de la Compañía de Jesús (The Holy Scripture—Text and Commentary by Professors of the Company of Jesus) explains that “among the Persians, Medes, and Chaldeans, the Magi formed a priestly class that promoted occult sciences, astrology, and medicine.” Nevertheless, by the Middle Ages, the group of Magi who went to see the young Jesus had been canonized and given the names Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar. Their remains are allegedly housed in the cathedral of Cologne, Germany.