Stars of Bethlehem

Christmas Heroes and Villains

The religious observance and secular gift-fest known as Christmas features more characters than a tree has ornaments. Here, in a mixed list, like elves in a Nativity scene, are some of December’s brightest luminaries. Grab your copies of Luke and Matthew, Seuss and Dickens, and follow along!

Jesus of Nazareth

JESUS is the religious figure whose birth gives the holiday its name. Christians believe he is the “Christ” (anointed one) foretold in ancient Hebrew scriptures, and the church’s observance of his birthday — “Christ’s Mass” — is traditionally 25 December. Whether he was really born that day no one knows. But biblical accounts say that kings and seers came great distances to present gifts to the newborn — and modern traditions of traveling and gift-giving have taken on a life of their own, quite apart from the holiday’s religious significance.

{Image: Jesus in the manger, in a 1622 painting by Gerard van Honthorst. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. }

Santa Claus

SANTA CLAUS, mythical pilot of a reindeer-powered flying sleigh, is perhaps the best known symbol of Christmas gift giving and general jolliness. His impersonators — or is that one really Santa everywhere? — can be spotted all over during the season, especially in and near American stores and shopping malls: posing for pictures with squirming tots, ringing bells beside charity collection pots, riding fire engines to holiday lighting ceremonies. His distinctive white beard, red-and-white suit, black boots and belt, conical cap, and bag of toys owe much to his depictions in the 19th century by poet Clement Moore and cartoonist Thomas Nast.

The Archangel Gabriel

Airborne creatures and objects are in fact rather common in Christmas lore. Among them are hosts of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest” at Jesus’ birth. The only named angel in the biblical story, however, is GABRIEL, and he does not fly in for his appearance. He just shows up, mysteriously, to inform a young unwed woman that she has been chosen to bear God’s son by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. Gabriel instructs her to name him Jesus. Oh, and don’t be afraid, he adds.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER made his first appearance in a department-store giveaway booklet in 1939, with a shiny snout that saved Santas flight plan “one foggy Christmas Eve.” He was the subject of a 1949 hit musical ditty sung by country-western singer Gene Autry that is now a perennial favorite of carolers and kindergarteners. In 1964, Rudolph starred in Rankin/Bass animated TV special that is now annual holiday fare.

{ Image courtesy of Rankin/Bass animation, from their 1964 TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. }

Mary, Mother of Jesus

MARY, the young woman of Nazareth visited by Gabriel (see above), and JOSEPH, who has married her despite the unusual pregnancy during their engagement, are the earthly parents of Jesus. They are on the road when the time comes for Jesus to be born, in a town called Bethlehem. No guest rooms are available, so the big event happens in a stable, where, as described in one of the most familiar lines in Christian scripture, “she wrapped him in swaddling clothes” (or “bands of cloth”) and “and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Over the centuries, the scene has inspired such carols as “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Away in a Manger,” and “Silent Night,” and countless Nativity or “creche” scenes — replicas of the stable and its inhabitants — that decorate fireplace mantles and the lawns of homes and churches.

{ Image: The Madonna in Sorrow, a 17th-century painting by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (often called simply Il Sassoferrato). Via Wikimedia Commons. }

Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin

In contrast to the Bible’s outdoorsy story — with a birth in a Middle East stable and shepherds watching flocks by night — much of Christmas’s cultural lore gives us wintry Northern scenes. Nothing does so more famously than IRVING BERLIN‘s “White Christmas,” sung by BING CROSBY in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn and subsequently made into a best-selling record. The singer dreams of glistening treetops and “sleigh bells in the snow,” and concludes with the wish: “May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.”

{ Image: Bing Crosby on the cover of the White Christmas album, published by Universal Music Group. }

Dr. Seuss and the Grinch

There’s no Nativity scene in the public square of DR. SEUSS‘s fabled Whoville. Still, the Christmas celebration there is vaguely spiritual, warm, fuzzy, and to the ears of the villainous GRINCH, just plain noisy. American TV viewers have been reminded of this annually since 1966, when Seuss’s 1957 book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, became an animated special that is now a classic. Its grouchy, green title character, with a heart “two sizes too small,” tries to put an end to the racket by simply stealing the holiday. It is also now seen as a feature film starring Jim Carrey and as a Broadway play.

{ Image: The cover of the 1957 Dr. Seuss book How the Grinch Stole Christmas, published by Random House. }


“Grouchy” would be too mild a word for HEROD, a regional ruler whom the Bible blames for ordering the execution of all males under 2 years old soon after the birth of Jesus. Herod does so because he has heard another future “king” has been born, and he decides to take ruthless steps to eliminate the future competitor. The only historical record of this massacre is the Gospel of Matthew, in which Herod’s order causes Joseph and Mary to flee with their baby to Egypt. Later they return to Nazareth, where Jesus grows up.

Charles Dickens and Tiny Tim

The anti-grouch in A Christmas Carol, CHARLES DICKENS‘ popular 1843 novel, is another little boy, TINY TIM CRATCHIT. His cheery outlook in the face of serious illness — “God bless us, every one” is his famous line — plays a part in the transformation of the story’s main character, the miser Ebenezer Scrooge. Scholars attribute portions of today’s cultural Christmas to this English story of meanness and redemption and its themes of sharing, good will, caroling, parties, time off work, poultry dinners and so forth.

Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’

Another story of redemption, the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, gave actor JIMMY STEWART his most famous role: that of George Bailey, a beleaguered but good-natured small-town banker and family man. The story’s climax comes in a dramatic revelation to George at Christmastime, and the film ends with a houseful of revelers singing the carol, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The film airs yearly on many American TV stations and is a popular choice for home video viewers at Christmastime.

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