Here's a Christmas story:
A long time ago in Russia there was a lady called Baboushka who lived in a little house deep in a forest. Even though she lived alone she spent all of her time sewing, cleaning and cooking, she was never lonely, but never saw many visitors.
She was amazed in the middle of one cold winter when the sky was full of snow to hear voices approaching through the forest. The voices came from three lost, hungry travellers who needed food and shelter. Baboushka invited them in, made them comfortable, built up a big fire to keep them warm and made them a lovely meal. The three men told her that they were searching for a baby prince but the star that was leading them was hidden by the snow storm. Baboushka told them that as soon as they had eaten and rested she would show them the way to the road.
The travellers told her that the road was no use, the star had to lead them. Baboushka was surprised, she asked what it all meant. The travellers told her that the star was a sign of a holy child's birth. They were going to see him and they had wonderful gifts for him. Baboushka was excited and said that she would like to see him. The travellers invited her to go along with them and help them. Baboushka said that she was too old to travel so when the men were ready and the sky had cleared they set off.
Suddenly Baboushka felt very lost and lonely. She decided that she would go and rushed around packing a bundle of clothes and some toys for the baby.
The next morning she set off. She asked after the travellers but never caught up with them. She asked after the baby prince, but never found him...and to this day she travels, still looking for the baby, and giving all the babies that she meets a little gift on her way.
Is that a happy story or a sad one? I'm not sure.
We had a very nice Christmas Eve. Busy, but nice. Claudia made the house presentable (no small thing with three little boys) and we had a big dinner. Germans open their presents on Christmas Eve; we got the boys upstairs, put the presents under the tree, then rang the bell three times to signal that the Christkind had come and gone.
Much delight! There were comic books, and a Lego Mars Mission, and a science kit with magnets, and oh, all sorts of nice things.
And there will be more tomorrow, because they're American too, so they'll get the American presents on Christmas morning.
Meanwhile, for some reason I'm on an Orthodox kick tonight. So here's an interesting description of a traditional icon:
(1) The focus of the icon, of course, is on the birth of our Lord from His most pure virgin mother Mary;
She is shown larger than any of the other figures, reclining on a mat, and looking not at her new-born Son, but rather with love and compassion towards her spouse, St Joseph the Betrothed (7), seeing his affliction and bewilderment over this most strange and divine birth;. He is shown in the left bottom corner, conversing with Satan, disguised as an old shepherd. The posture of St Joseph is one of doubt and inner trouble, for he wondered if it might be possible that the conception and birth were not by some secret human union; how blessed he was to serve the Mother of God and her divine Son, in spite of these thoughts and temptations, and to protect her from the evil gossip of the people who could not yet possibly understand so great a mystery...
A nativity scene that includes Satan? This was new to me. But apparently it's firmly part of Orthodox tradition -- Satan appears as a shepherd or old man talking to a troubled Joseph. One website says that this comes from "Holy Tradition", which is a term of art in Orthodoxy, while another suggests that "The purpose of this [scene] is to give place in the nativity scene to the role of doubt in human faith." That sounds like a modern interpolation to me, more's the pity.
In the cave are an ox and ass, details not mentioned by the Gospels, but which are an invariable feature of every icon of the Nativity; the scene is included to show the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "the ox knows his Owner, and the ass his Master's crib, but Israel does not know Me, and the people has not regarded Me" (Isaiah 1:3)...
The holy angels (4) are seen both glorifying God and bringing the good tidings of the Lord's birth to the shepherds (5). The fact that Jewish shepherds and heathen magi were among the first to worship our Lord shows us the universality of this great event, meant for the salvation of all mankind.
The final detail of this icon, the scene of the washing of the Lord (8) is an element that has caused some controversy over the ages. In some churches of the holy monasteries of Mount Athos, the scene in the frescoes has been deliberately obliterated and replaced with bushes or shepherds; there was a prevailing opinion that this scene was degrading to Christ, who had no need of washing, being born in a miraculous manner from a pure virgin. But we retain this image on our icons, being part of the holy tradition passed on to us; truly it does not degrade the Lord, but magnifies Him, as is evident in the prayer that is appointed to be read at the time of Baptism for the midwife of a child: (From the Old-rite Potrebnik, 2nd Prayer for the midwife) "O Master, Lord our God...Who didst lie in a manger and didst bless the midwife Salome* who came to believe in an honorable virginity..." [*according to Tradition, Salome was a daughter of St Joseph by his previous marriage] Who, more effectively than a midwife, could testify to the divine and virginal birth? Therefore we do well to understand the importance of this blessed scene.
Again, I had no idea there was a tradition of a midwife. But, yep -- sometimes one woman, sometimes two. Neat.
Last thought: is there any tradition anywhere as to what became of the shepherds?