But none of our traditions, such as hunting the wren, is quite as strange as those involving the Bambino of Rome.
This is a small figure of the infant Jesus which is held in the Ara Coeli church in Rome. Over the centuries many pious beliefs sprang up about it, to the extent that on May 2, 1897, Pope Leo XIII crowned the Bambino ‘King of Rome’.
The image is said to be carved from the wood of an olive tree grown in the Garden of Gethsemane and to have been brought to the city in the last half of the 15th Century.
Pious legend suggests it was miraculously transported there to join images of the other members of the Holy Family around the manger installed at Christmas time in the church.
However, most strikingly, in more recent times at that season of the year it was the custom for many thousands of letters to arrive at the church enclosing personal petitions and prayers of various kinds addressed to the Bambino.
Even telegrams and cables were sent when the technology became available.
All these were, so to speak, Christmas greetings to the Holy Child.
The letters are checked for offerings or anything else valuable, and were then placed on the altar.
In due course they would all be destroyed by fire, despite the pleadings of stamp collectors to have the stamps passed on.
Pope Leo was merely recognising a tradition that gave pleasure and hope to many.
Such a tradition and its development may seem out of tune with the mood of our times, and yet it reminds us that over the centuries people have naturally been curious about the infancy of Jesus, about the Holy Family in the hidden years of his life, and what it must have been like.
All families recognise in the family at Nazareth something of themselves.
So naturally, over the centuries people, after Feast of the Nativity, have rightly wondered “What happened after the first Christmas?”
On these years, however, the authors of the Gospels are curiously silent.
What we think of today as the story of the nativity comes largely from the Gospel According to Luke, which some think might have been written in Caesarea in or about 56 AD, or later – though these dates of composition are always a matter of debate.
The Gospel According to Mathew was written earlier somewhere in Palestine some think about 41 AD – others say much later.
The authors of the Gospels According Matthew and John have nothing in detail about the nativity, opening their accounts with the coming of John the Baptist, as does the Gospel According to Mark, perhaps written in Rome, which does not even allude to the nativity.
The human details did not really concern the authors: they wished, as the Pope has pointed out in his new book, to make other theological and symbolic points.
Matthew, for instance, writes of the genealogy of Jesus as it appeared to the world, showing his descent from King David, placing him immediately in an important biblical context.
The events after the Nativity are in this kind of schema. The circumcision, for instance, was the carrying out of an ancient Jewish tradition ordained by God – though one the early Christians quickly dropped as they moved out into the larger Roman Empire, which did not care for such a custom.
The visit of the magi is one of the incidents about which historians have been sceptical. But one could also say that it is so strange it must be true.
The ‘wise men’ of the Gospels were, however, in the Middle Ages converted into three kings, each representing the three continents then known, Asia, Africa and Europe; their shrine was established in Köln. The idea was that the realms of the world offered homage to the Divine Infant.
And yet the original magi from Chaldea were magicians and astrologers, the ultimate ancestors of our present day ‘New Age’ enthusiasts.
That is certainly an idea to ponder, but we might keep in mind that the Nativity is nothing if not the true beginning of a ‘new age’.
No historical evidence has ever been forthcoming about the massacre of the Holy Innocents.
But the scepticism of the historian might be countered by observing that perhaps only a few babies might have been involved — those under two it will be recalled, in a limited area.
Today the various autocrats of the Middle East have little difficulty in killing a few babies as a matter of public policy.
Nothing usual there then.
The Flight into Egypt, too, has been doubted. And yet there was a significant Jewish community in Egypt, some settled quite far up the Nile.
The traditions about the Holy Family in Egypt, while extravagant in some ways seem, to many to be based on some kind of authentic traditions, and not merely to have been inserted in the Gospel narrative to fulfil an Old Testament prefiguring.
Certainly the escape from terror has made the Holy family an image of all the refugees in history, especially these days across the Middle East.
Yet Christians in Europe and North American seem oddly reluctant to embrace the ancient Christmas traditions of Egypt, though there too Jesus once walked.
But aside from these incidents, concluding with the finding in the Temple, the Gospels seemed to lack ‘human interest’. This seeming lacunae in the Scriptures was soon filled up by others.
The author of Luke tells the Theophilus to whom he writes that “many have undertaken to compile a statement of the facts that are given full credence among us” – he uses the words autoptai meaning eye witnesses, and uperetai, agents of the Word, but these very early accounts have been lost.
However, other writers, orthodox, heretical and gnostic, attempted to complete the story.
The Protoevangelium of James the Brother of the Lord is the prime example, but over the next two centuries or more even stranger documents appeared.
As the Church strengthened and became part of, or rather whole of, western society, a true collection of authentic writings, or perhaps most acceptable writings would be more exact, the canon as we now have it, was established and these others were excluded, such as The Shepherd of Hermas, or suppressed.
However, during the Middle Ages they reappeared, but by then their true nature had been largely lost sight of. So it was that legends of the Holy Childhood, drawing on these earlier writings, abounded.
They came to influence not so much the official teaching of the Church, but the pious beliefs and customs of the laity.
Everyone loves a charming story, and these texts supplied them. And their popularity in explaining what happened after the first Christmas kept them in the memories of many until a recent date.
So quite in the spirit of the Season of the Epiphany in medieval times, above, here are some stories of the childhood of Jesus as they would have been told around the family hearth in centuries past.
He found an old woman who was not only old but infirm, and she had come from Jerusalem and was very weary, but when she heard Our Lady needed help with her little child she came at once with Saint Joseph.
When they reached the stable, which was in a large cave, they saw it was filled with lights, brighter than any of the lights of Earth; but greater than the light of the Sun itself, was that which shone over the Head of the Infant Jesus who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and cradled in His Motherís arms.
The old woman looked upon them, as much as she dared for the brightness, and said, Art thou the mother of this Child? And Mary replied, I am His Mother.
On which the other said, Thou art very different from all other women. Mary answered There is no child like to my Son, neither is there any women like to his Mother.
And the old nurse having looked again upon them both with the greatest reverence and affection, said to the Blessed Virgin: I am come to beg an everlasting reward.
Then Our Lady Saint Mary said: Lay thine hands upon my Child, and when she had done this she rose up straight and well and healed of all her infirmities.
And she waited upon them, doing all they required.
Then the shepherds came and the cave seemed like a glorious Temple, because the tongues of angels and men were joined in one accord to praise the Birth of Our Saviour.
Also the woman gave praise to God saying: I thank Thee, O God of Israel, for that mine eyes have seen the Saviour of the World.
The palm tree
You will remember how our Lady and St Joseph had taken Jesus into Egypt to escape from King Herodís soldiers.
A story is told that on their journey they came to a desert place, and Mary was very weary by reason of the great heat of the sun. Seeing a tree not far off she said to Joseph: Let us rest for a little under the shade of the tree.
So Joseph led the ass there and helped Mary to dismount with the Holy Child. As she sat there, looking up into the branches she saw it was a palm tree with dates, and said, Joseph, would it be possible for you to reach me some of those fruits?
But Joseph said: I wonder why you ask this, Mary, for see how high these branches are! For my part, I am distressed because there is no water and out water bottles are empty. How can we quench our thirst?
Then the little Child Jesus laying in His Motherís arms said softly to the palm tree: O tree, bow down your branches that My mother Mary may eat of your fruit.
When the tree heard the Childís words it bowed down its crown to the feet of our Blessed Lady, and she and St Joseph gathered the fruit and ate it as much as they wanted. And still the palm tree remained bowed, waiting for the Childís command to rise again.
The Jesus said: Rise up, O tree, and lift your head, and be comforted for you shall be one of the trees of My father in Paradise. But now let the spring of water which lies hidden in your roots gush forth that we may have water to quench our thirst.
At these words the water gushed forth clear, cool, and sweet, so that they drank of it, were refreshed and rejoiced.
A poor child cured
There is a story told of our Blessed Lord when he was a little child in Bethlehem, how it happened that many children in the village were sick of a dangerous disease, and how some of them died.
There was amongst them the son of a poor woman. As he lay there at the point of death, she thought suddenly to take him, just as he was, to our Lady's house. When she got there, Mary was washing Jesus.
Then the woman cried: O my Lady Mary, look on this poor child; he has most dreadful pains and is like to die.
So Mary hearing her said: Take a little of this water in which I have now washed my Most Holy Son, and sprinkle it upon your child.
So they woman took a little of the water, doing as Mary said, and as she sprinkled the drops on her boy, he fell fast asleep. His mother carried him home feeling glad he was relieved of his pain.
And after he had slept for a time, he woke again perfectly well and quite recovered from his illness. So the woman being exceedingly grateful and full of joy went to our Lady's house.
And Mary said to her: Give praise to God, Who has cured this thy son through the merits of my Holy Child.