The Story of the Nativity, as related by the Book of Matthew is a relatively simple one. The Christians of later eras, however, filled it with rich and sometimes strange happenings. The accounts of events varied from culture to culture but for all, it was a night of universal peace.
On a mountain summit in India, people saw the star and recognized it as one that had long been awaited. It was a heavenly sign unlike any other...unfixed in its course and floating freely. Some declared that the image of the Virgin shone from the star, holding in her arms a radiant infant bearing a crown. This Indian mountain was called Fons by some and Victorialis by others, but the legend agrees that it was the tallest mountain then to be found in India, with a broad, flat summit dotted with trees, glades, springs and grottoes. Many came to this mountain to watch for the emergence of the star...but the identity of the watchers is one of speculation.
By some accounts, these "watchers" were the descendants of Balaam, an ancient but sinful seer described in the Old Testament Book of Exodus. In the days when the children of Israel were wanderers, Balaam had foretold of the coming of the star and had directed his sons to go to the mountain and wait. This vigil was handed down through his generations until the star finally appeared.
Others maintain that the "watchers" (who would later be known as the Wise Men) descended from the stock of Shem, Ham and Japhet...the sons of Noah. Still others believe they were wise astronomers who came from Chaldea and Persia, but most of the legendary stories make them Kings.
They had travelled to the mountain on the advice of their soothsayers and had kept watch for the star from different areas of the plateau. The eldest of them was Melchior, King of Arabia, and he was sixty years old. The youngest was named Gaspar. He was twenty when the star appeared and ruled over Tharsis. The third monarch was Balthasar, King of Sheba, and he was in his fortieth year.
In addition to the sight of the star, each of them received a special sign of the Savior's arrival. At the hour of the Christ Child's birth, an ostrich owned by Gaspar hatched two eggs. Out of one sprang a lion and out of the other, a lamb. From a tall cedar tree in Melchior's garden flew a bird which announced the birth of Jesus in a human voice. To Balthasar, was born a son with the power of speech fully developed. Balthasar's son spoke that the mother of Jesus would be a virgin and that Jesus would live for thirty-three years. The son of Balthasar also predicted that he, himself, would live only thirty-three days.
Clad in silks and cloth of gold, leading trains of slaves carrying provisions and gifts, the Three Kings began their journey west. They travelled across lonely deserts and windy, mountainous plains, guided always by the star. They reached Jerusalem and conversed with Herod before continuing on their way. It is then said that, at this point, the star vanished from the sky, but the Three Kings rode steadily west and, in time, came to the foothills of Bethlehem.
Earlier that night, in the fields below the city, a herald of angels had appeared to shepherds. These simple guardians of sheep had watched the star rise to become suspended in the heavens while they listened to the celestial choir which told them of the birth. Slowly, the shepherds stood, grasped their staffs and began to climb the rocky path that led to Bethlehem.
All around the world, so it is said, the air was filled with a beautiful fragrance. The balsam gardens of En-gedi, on the shore of the Dead Sea, burst into full bloom. Along the path taken by the shepherds, the tiny starlike Rose of Jericho unfurled its petals from a footprint left by Mary. Further down the roadside, a Rosemary bush flowered blue instead of white, as it had always done before, because it had been brushed by the Virgin's cloak.
Eventually, all who followed the star's beacon arrived at the same place. The babe they sought lay in crude cradle, lined with herbs and flowers...clover, wild thyme and the Galium verum, also know as Our-Lady's-Bedstraw, which grows in British hedgerows. There too, was found the Holy Hay or "sainfoin," which of its own accord, curled about the head of the infant, creating a wreath. All around the manger were the beasts of the farm and field...ox, ass, sheep and dog. Above the child, high in a nest, sang a wren.
Clustered at the entrance were the humble people. A shepherd with a lamb, another who held a pair of doves, and yet another who laid his pipe at the babe's side...thus offering to the blessed infant the music of the pastures.
There too, the children gathered. One of them, a small girl named Madelon, was weeping because she wanted to give the baby a gift and had nothing to offer. Then, a flash of brilliant light illuminated her tiny form, as if a star had fallen at her feet. Suddenly, the Angel Gabriel stood before her. He struck the ground hard with his staff and white-petaled flowers with gold hearts appeared. Madelon picked the blossoms and carried them to the cradle. Her gift was the Christmas Rose.
With the arrival of the Three Kings, everyone moved aside as they strode forward to pay homage to the babe. They knelt before the manger and made their offerings...offerings which signified both joy and sorrow. Melchior had brought thirty gold coins and a golden apple...treasures with which to crown the little king. Balthasar's gift was frankincense, a token of divinity. Gaspar's tribute was bitter myrrh, the ungent used in embalming and thus, a sign of the death that the child would later experience.
In all areas of the world, time paused in its course. It was then, so it is said, that the animals were given the power of speech. "Christus natus est," crowed the cock. "Christ is born." "Quando?" croaked the raven. "When?" "Hac nocte," replied the rook. "This night." "Ubi?" lowed the ox. "Where?"
The sheep spoke then and said the place was Bethlehem, so the ass brayed "Eamus." "Let us go." Most of the animals obeyed. The stork came swiftly, plucking its own feathers to soften the bed of the infant. From that time forward, it would be the patron of babies. The robin flew quickly so that it might fan the fire which kept the babe warm. The bird became singed by the flames and its ensuing red breast for ever after marked its generosity. The nightingale stood vigil near the manger. It had never sung before that night, but it carolled with the host of angels and for always, its song would remain an echo of the heavenly glory. The cat also followed but disdained to join the kneeling beasts and only mumbled a recognition. Amused at its independence, Mary blessed it and declared that although it would always live at man's hearth, it would never become man's servant.
The owl, however, did not rouse itself to join with the other animals and was condemned to everlasting penance, hiding by day and by night mournfully crying, "Who will guide me to the newborn? Who? Who?"
Led by the children and to the tune of the shepherds' pipes, the Three Kings then departed to carry the news of the child's birth to their own countries. It is said that it took each of them over two years to arrive back at their homes. Each of the Three Kings lived to be a very old age and, before each died, the star that had led them appeared briefly before their eyes again. Many years later, the remains of the Three Kings were taken to Constantinople, then by ship to Milan and, much later still, to the Cologne Cathedral where they still lie behind the altar, encased in gold.
As time passed, the story of the journey taken by the Three Kings was further embellished and the route they travelled was extended. It was said that they had passed through Italy and asked for guidance from an old woman named Befana, who had told them she was far too busy to give them any assistance. As a punishment for her neglect, she now has to wander the country every Christmas in search of the Christ Child. It was also believed that each year, for centuries after their burial, the Three Kings lived once more on the Eve of Epiphany and rode through Spain, their mounts feeding on the straw and hay left out for them and, in return, filled the children's shoes with gifts.
Thus did Christians from all cultures lovingly shape the story of the Nativity and related how all of nature and mankind bowed to the Infant Jesus at the time of his birth.