What was the first Christmas really like?
Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, one of the greatest mystics of the Catholic Church, received a detailed vision of the first Christmas. These visions are recorded in the book "The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary." We share below some excerpts:
Sunday, November 11th 1821. For several days in succession I have seen the Blessed Virgin with her mother Anna, whose house is about an hour’s journey away from Nazareth in the valley of Zabulon. She was far advanced in pregnancy, and sat in a room working with several other women. They were preparing coverlets and other things for Mary’s confinement. Anna, who possessed pastures with flocks and herds, was well-to-do. As she thought that Mary would be in her house for the birth of her Child, she made all the preparations in a very lavish manner, with especially beautiful coverlets and rugs.
November 12th. Joseph will arrive back in Nazareth today. As he (Joseph) was crossing the field of Chimki, six hours from Nazareth, at midnight last night, an angel appeared to him and warned him that he was to go to Bethlehem with Mary at once, for it was there that she was to bear her Child. He also indicated everything that she was to take with her for her use, explaining that they were to be few and simple things, and in particular no embroidered coverlets. Also, besides the ass upon which Mary was to sit, he was to take with him a she-ass one-year old that had not yet had a foal. He was to let her run free and was always to follow whatever path she took.
November 13th. Today I saw the Blessed Virgin and her mother Anna in the house in Nazareth, where Joseph revealed to them what had been told him the previous night. Thereupon they returned to Anna’s house, and I saw them preparing to leave immediately. Anna was distressed. The Blessed Virgin must have known that she was to bear her Child in Bethlehem, but had been silent out of humility. Since she knew from the passages in the Prophets that the Saviour was to be born in Bethlehem, she yielded joyfully to the Divine Will and began the journey, which was difficult for her at that time of the year, when it was often decidedly cold in the valleys between the ranges of hills.
The Long Journey to Bethlehem
November 14th. I saw the Holy Family going on their way and climbing Mount Gilboa. They did not pass through any town; they followed the young she-ass, which always took lonely by-ways. I saw them stopping at a house in the hills belonging to Lazarus... The steward, who knew them from other journeys, gave them a friendly welcome. The steward and his wife were surprised that the Blessed Virgin should have been willing to undertake such a long journey in her condition, when she might have had every comfort at home with her mother Anna.
November 15-16. I saw the Holy Family some hours’ journey beyond this last place... the Blessed Virgin was suffering from the cold and said to Joseph: “We must rest, I can go no farther.” Hardly had she spoken when the she-ass that was running with them stood still under a terebinth tree... The Blessed Virgin prayed earnestly to God that He would not suffer her to take harm from the cold. At once she was filled with so great a warmth that she held out her hands to Joseph to warm his. Joseph spoke very comfortingly to the Blessed Virgin: he is so sorry that the journey is very difficult. He spoke to her about the good lodging which he hoped to find for her in Bethlehem.
November 17th. I saw the Holy Family spending the whole day here (a shed beside an inn) and praying together (on Sabbath). I saw the mistress of the house and her three children with the Blessed Virgin, and the farmer’s wife of the day before also came with her two children and paid Our Lady a visit. The two women were greatly impressed by Mary’s wisdom and modest behaviour. The children had little parchment rolls, from which Mary made them read to her. She spoke to them in such a lovely way about what they read, that they could not take their eyes off her.
November 21st. Today I saw the holy travellers entering a big shepherd’s house while it was still full day. The master of the house received the travellers in a very friendly way and was very ready to help. The mistress of the house was rather perverse in character. She had surreptitiously examined the travellers, and as she was young and vain she was vexed by the beauty of the Blessed Virgin: she was also afraid that Mary might appeal to her to let her stay and be confined there, so she kept away in a hostile spirit and insisted that they should leave the next day. (This is the same woman whom Jesus found there in this house, blind and crippled, thirty years later on October 11th, after His Baptism. After reproaching her for her inhospitality and vanity He healed her.) The Holy Family spent the night here.
November 23rd. The journey from the last inn to Bethlehem must have taken about three hours. Mary and Joseph went to a large building a few minutes outside Bethlehem... This was the old ancestral house of David and once Joseph’s family home. Relations or acquaintances of Joseph’s still lived there, but they treated him as a stranger and as a person whom they did not want to know. This house was now being used for the receipt of the money from the Roman taxation.
After this (fulfilling the requirements for the census and taxation), they (Joseph and Mary) went on into Bethlehem... Mary remained with the donkey at the very entrance of the street while Joseph sought a lodging in the nearest houses – in vain, for Bethlehem was full of strangers, all running from place to place.
Joseph came back to Mary in great distress; he had found no shelter. He was in tears and Mary comforted him. He went once more from one house to another; but as he gave the approaching confinement of his wife as his chief reason for his request, he met with even more decided refusals... At last Joseph came back. He was so upset that he came up hesitatingly. He said he had had no success, but he knew of one place outside the town, belonging to the shepherds, who often went there when coming with their flocks to the town. He said that he knew the place from childhood; when his brothers had tormented him, he had often escaped there to hide from them and to say his prayers.
On the east of the town, a few minutes outside it, they came to a hill or high bank, in front of which was an open space made pleasant by several trees. Among many other different grottoes or cave-dwellings there was, at the south end of this hill, round which the road wound its way to the Shepherd’s Valley, the cave in which Joseph sought shelter for the Blessed Virgin.
The Blessed Virgin was in the eastern part of this cave, exactly opposite the entrance, when she gave birth to the Light of the World. The crib in which the Child Jesus was laid stood on the west side of the southern and more roomy part of the cave. This crib was a hollowed-out stone trough lying on the ground and used for cattle to drink from.
On the Blessed Virgin telling him that her time was drawing near and that he was to retire into his room and pray, Joseph hung up some more burning lamps in the cave and went out, as he had heard a noise outside. Here he found the young she-ass.
When Joseph came back into the cave and stood at the entrance to his sleeping-place looking towards the Blessed Virgin, he saw her with her face turned towards the east, kneeling on the bed facing away from him. He saw her as it were surrounded by flames... He gazed at her like Moses when he saw the burning bush; then he went into his little cell in holy awe and threw himself on his face in prayer.
The Miraculous Birth
I saw the radiance round the Blessed Virgin ever growing greater. At midnight she was wrapt in an ecstasy of prayer. I saw her lifted from the earth, so that I saw the ground beneath her. Her hands were crossed on her breast. The radiance about her increased; everything, even things without life, were in a joyful inner motion, the stones of the roof, of the walls, and of the floor of the cave became as it were alive in the light.
Then I no longer saw the roof of the cave; a pathway of light opened above Mary, rising with ever-increasing glory towards the height of heaven. In this pathway of light there was a wonderful movement of glories interpenetrating each other, and, as they approached, appearing more clearly in the form of choirs of heavenly spirits. Meanwhile the Blessed Virgin, borne up in ecstasy, was now gazing downwards, adoring her God, whose Mother she had become and who lay on the earth before her in the form of a helpless new-born child. I saw our Redeemer as a tiny child, shining with a light that overpowered all the surrounding radiance, and lying on the carpet at the Blessed Virgin’s knees.
The Blessed Virgin remained for some time rapt in ecstasy. I saw her laying a cloth over the Child, but at first she did not touch Him or take Him up. After some time I saw the Child Jesus move and heard Him cry. Then Mary seemed to come to herself, and she took the Child up from the carpet. I saw angels round her in human forms, lying on their faces and adoring the Child.
It might have been an hour after His Birth when Mary called St. Joseph, who was still lying in prayer. When he came near, he threw himself down on his face in devout joy and humility. It was only when Mary begged him to take to his heart, in joy and thankfulness, the holy present of the Most High God, that he stood up, took the Child Jesus in his arms, and praised God with tears of joy.