This Movie Shouldn’t Be This Good

The Great Wall poster from Shaw Online

“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”

-Roger Ebert

In 2011, a movie came out with the stupidest premise of all time. That premise was right there in the title: Cowboys & Aliens. I thought to myself, “Are Hollywood producers getting their ideas from their six-year-old kids now?” There was simply no way that movie was going to be anything other than b-movie dreck, and the only entertainment value it was going to have was in pointing and laughing at how terrible it was.

Then I watched it. And I loved it. Cowboys & Aliens was actually a really good movie, in spite of its premise. It had really good characters, a compelling story, good acting, good cinematography, and good directing. I was pleasantly surprised.

I was thinking of Cowboys & Aliens quite a lot when I watched The Great Wall, a fantasy action film starring Matt Damon.

The Great Wall is actually quite an interesting cultural artifact; in a way, it is a symbol of how globalized the world’s media has become. Filmed in Qingdao, China, The Great Wall is the result of a partnership between the American and Chinese film industries that is, in essence, China’s attempt to have a breakout global blockbuster hit. The film was produced by Legendary East, the Hong Kong-based subsidiary of American film company Legendary Entertainment, which was itself bought by a Chinese company called the Wanda Group in 2016. The film was directed by Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), and it was written by a team of Americans that included Tony Gilroy, who wrote the Jason Bourne movies. Apart from Damon, Pedro Pascal (Narcos, The Adjustment Bureau) and Willem Dafoe (Platoon, The Grand Budapest Hotel), almost all of the cast is made up of Chinese actors and actresses. This movie is the most expensive to ever be filmed in China, costing $150 million to make.

So, considering how important this movie is to the Chinese film industry, how expensive the movie was to make, and what a massive gamble this film represents, what was the premise they chose to go with for this would-be breakout global blockbuster hit? Ancient Chinese soldiers on the Great Wall of China fighting hordes of hideous green alien monsters.

Yes, really.

The Great Wall image from CGMeetup

I laughed out loud when I saw the trailer for this film. I simply could not believe my eyes. I thought to myself, “They have to be joking, right?” Surely, this was going to be an epic flop. It was going to be one of the biggest disasters of movie history, I thought, and decided that I had to see what a horrible atrocity this film was with my own eyes.

Once again, I was dead wrong.

Just as with Cowboys & Aliens, the movie took its patently ludicrous premise and ran with it. Somewhere along the line, Zhang Yimou and the rest of the team making this movie must have had a meeting and decided, “Look, this is a movie about fighting alien monsters on the Great Wall of China. But, darn it, we will make the best movie about fighting alien monsters on the Great Wall of China that has ever been made!” Boy, did they deliver.

It seems to me like the trick when dealing with a crazy premise like this is to focus on developing a very good core story and use the bizarre stuff as window-dressing. Cowboys & Aliens was, at its core, a really good Western that just so happened to have aliens in it. Likewise, The Great Wall is, at its core, a film about an outsider caught in the middle of something way over his head. The movie works because it grounds the human drama and makes that part so believable, you are willing to suspend your disbelief for the green monster parts.

Indeed, the movie takes great pains to make everything that happens on the human side “make sense”. What are two white guys doing in China? They are on a mission to learn the secret of gunpowder and bring it back to Europe. Why do some of the Chinese characters know how to speak English? Another European had arrived several years ago to do the same thing, and taught those characters English. The Chinese armies use all manner of fantastical weapons and war machines, but the film shows us how each of these machines works using technology that would have been available at the time. These may be minor details, but so many movies would have just ignored or glossed over them, the fact that this movie takes time to explain them shows a commitment to world-building that really pays off.

It really is the acting, though, that pulls the whole thing together. The sincerity in their performances really drives the drama and makes me willing to buy that they really are in a fight for their lives against an enemy they don’t fully understand. I was particularly impressed by the performance of Tian Jing (Special ID, The Warring States). If The Great Wall performs as well as its makers hope, she might start showing up in more Hollywood movies, and if so, she deserves it.

Of course, in a movie this expensive, one would hope the special effects are excellent, and I can assure you that they do not disappoint. If you like epic movies such as The Lord of the Rings films, you will find plenty to enjoy here.

If there’s one lesson to take away from all of this, it’s that you shouldn’t dismiss a movie out of hand because of its premise. Sometimes, a good movie just might surprise you out of nowhere.

Valentine’s Day Special: The Man Who Gave Up the World for Love

Valentines Day chocolates by John Hritz

What would you be willing to do for your significant other? What would you be wiling to sacrifice for the one you love? Would you give up the world for him or her?

I know that sounds a bit hyperbolic. “Give up the world for love” sounds like such a cliché that it’s hard to take it seriously. Yet I know a man who did exactly that.

Time for some strange politics.

While nobody in history has ever successfully conquered the entire world…

Though not for lack of trying

Though not for lack of trying

…the British Empire came far closer than anybody else. They managed to create the largest empire in all of human history; at the peak of their power, they ruled over a quarter of the Earth’s land mass. They used to say “the sun never set on the British Empire” because they had so many colonies around the world that whenever the sun was setting in one colony it was rising in another. They ruled India, Canada, much of Africa, the entire continent of Australia, and more! Just look at this map:

All the pink areas were places under British rule

All the pink areas were places under British rule

Yet even as they reached the peak of their power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were still the United Kingdom, a country with a centuries-deep heritage loaded with historical baggage that has produced a very strange political system filled with arcane rules and rituals.

For today’s story, we must begin with King Henry VIII, the infamous English monarch who had six wives when all was said and done. He famously split the Church of England away from the Roman Catholic Church when the pope wouldn’t let him divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Except that story you’ve heard a million times isn’t exactly true. What King Henry VIII wanted from the pope wasn’t a divorce, but an annulment.

What’s the difference, you may ask? Well, a divorce is a dissolution of a perfectly valid marriage, while an annulment is a declaration that the marriage was never valid in the first place. It seems like a minor distinction, but it actually is a very important one. See, even though it split from the firmly anti-divorce Catholic faith, the Church of England continued to refuse to accept divorce just as firmly as its Catholic counterpart. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Church of England finally permitted a divorce and remarriage, and even then, it would only permit it under exceptional circumstances.

This detail will be very important to our story.

Wallis Simpson photo from 1936 by an unknown photographer

We begin, of all places, in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. There, a girl was born, named Bessie Wallis Warfield. Her father, a fairly well-to-do Baltimore flour merchant, died when she was very young; as she was growing up, her mother was dependent on the charity of her late husband’s family. A the age of 19, the girl married a pilot from Kansas who flew planes for the U.S. Navy. He turned out to be an alcoholic, though, and the two divorced in 1927.

As their divorce was being finalized, she met Ernest Aldrich Simpson, the New York-born wealthy head of a shipping company. When she married him, she adopted the name history would remember her by: Wallis Simpson. Through her husband, Mrs. Simpson came to be a socialite who brushed elbows with the rich and famous. She eventually followed her husband to England, where she met the man who would change her life: Edward, Prince of Wales.

Edward VIII image by Freeland Studio

Edward was the son and heir of George V, King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India (as the British monarch was known at the time). Born in a palatial “hunting lodge” on one of his father’s royal country estates, his childhood was typical of those in the elites of British royalty and nobility of the time, being mainly raised by hired nannies and privately tutored. He served in the Royal Navy for a time, but when World War I broke out he was barred from serving on active duty in the front lines for obvious reasons. Still, he visited the troops as often as he could manage, making him very popular with the British public. After the war, he toured the British Empire and even bought a private estate in Canada.

When he met Wallis Simpson, by all accounts, he was absolutely stricken with this bossy American who found the pomp and pageantry of British royal life to be something to point and laugh at. He bought her all manner of jewelry and took her on getaways to the Alps and the Mediterranean. Eyewitnesses reported that the Prince was completely dependent on her and that he would do basically anything she asked. Some of his staffers even complained that the affair was getting in the way of his official duties.

The romance between the Prince and the American was seen as scandalous by the rest of the royal family and the British political elite. His parents refused to let Simpson under their roof, and the British press tried to pretend their love affair didn’t exist. However, many took comfort that at least she was just the Prince’s mistress, though he adamantly denied such talk.

Then two things happened that changed everything. On January 20, 1936, George V died. Prince Edward was now King-Emperor Edward VIII, ruler of the largest empire in history. Then, in October, Wallis Simpson filed for divorce from her husband. It was around this time that the new king did the unthinkable: he declared he intended to marry Simpson and make her his queen.

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The reigning British monarch is also the head of the Church of England, a church that refused to allow divorce and remarriage. Simpson was about to be twice-divorced, and for her to marry Edward would be to violate one of the tenets of the Anglican faith. This was on top of the various other reasons many in the British elite opposed the match: Simpson was an American commoner, and royals traditionally had to marry a fellow royal or at least someone with noble blood; plus, Simpson was rumored to be a Nazi sympathizer and possibly even a spy for Germany.

Yet many in Britain actually supported their King. Among the working class and military veterans, Edward was extremely popular, and many felt it was wrong for the politicians to try to block a man from marrying the love of his life. Many Americans were also naturally in favor of the match; they relished the idea of an American becoming a queen.

Nevertheless, the divorces just couldn’t be hand-waved away, not even by the King himself. In November, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin forced the issue, announcing that if the King refused to give up his plans to marry Simpson, his entire government would all resign simultaneously. This threat shot straight to the core of the British constitution. The British monarch is supposed to be politically impartial and neutral, not favoring any political party over another. He or she is also supposed to never interfere in the business of elected government officials. The monarch’s role is as a ceremonial referee making sure the system functions properly, but while he or she can advise, encourage, or warn the British government, he or she may not directly intervene in political matters. Baldwin’s gambit was basically saying, “You can’t marry Mrs. Simpson without directly intervening in political matters.”

Now Edward faced a dilemma. He was being forced to choose which was more important to him: being King-Emperor of the largest empire in history, or Simpson.

He chose Simpson.

Edward VIII abdication image from the National Archives

On December 10, King Edward formally abdicated the throne. His younger brother was now King George VI, and the line of succession to the throne would thenceforth pass to George VI’s children (Which it did, in 1952, when his daughter was crowned Queen Elizabeth II). The next day, Edward left for Australia. His brother gave Edward a new title, “Duke of Windsor”, as a sort of compensation.

On June 3, 1937, Edward and Simpson finally married in a small, private wedding in France. No royals attended the wedding, as the new king forbade them from doing so. The new king did give the couple an allowance to live off of, on the condition that they could not return to the United Kingdom without an invitation. Relations between the couple and the rest of the royal family were strained for years, particularly after the Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited Adolf Hitler at his private retreat in October 1937.

Yeah, I can see why that might be a source of contention.

Yeah, I can see why that might be a source of contention.

During World War II, the Duke was appointed Governor of the Bahamas, spending the war functionally in exile in the tropical islands. After the war, they lived in retirement in France, where the Duke died of cancer in 1972. The ageing Duchess ended up with dementia, living as a recluse until her own death in 1986. They had no children.

The abdication crisis, as these events came to be known, had a significant effect on the history of the British Empire’s last days. For starters, it was the first time that British dominions like Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Ireland asserted their independence, insisting that they had to each separately approve of the abdication for it to have effect under their own laws, though each of them ultimately did so. Various statements by Edward before and after his abdication indicate that he saw the Nazis as a possible ally against the threat of communism, and as it is ultimately the British monarch who declares war for the United Kingdom, it is possible he may have tried to stop the British from joining World War II against them. Plus, independence movements were already growing in India, and these events almost certainly emboldened those across the Empire that wanted to throw off the British yoke.

So, yes, history proves that love really can change the world.

Weird Facts About Presidential Inaugurations

Inauguration image from the Department of Defense

Two days ago, I watched the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Watching the ceremony brought back memories of 2009, when I watched Barack Obama’s inauguration, and I started to think about how wonderful it is that we live in a country where the transition of power from one person and one political party to another is so peaceful and smooth. After all, that very same day, the president of the Gambia had to be convinced by an invading army to step down and let his elected successor take office.

Later, I watched a special on American Heroes Channel about how the White House Staff have only five hours on Inauguration Day to move the new First Family in and redecorate the White House to the new president’s liking. I had always assumed that it would be a multi-day process, and had no idea it had to be done so quickly! It turns out that the inauguration day parade and ceremonies have a very practical purpose – they give the staff the time they need to fix up the White House.

All of this made me wonder what other interesting facts and trivia there is floating around out there about U.S. presidential inaugurations, and so I decided to look and see what I could find.

Where the ceremony takes place has changed several times

Washington's Inauguration painting by Ramon de Elorriaga

When George Washington was sworn in in 1789, Washington, D.C. didn’t exist yet, and New York City was serving as the temporary capital. Consequently, his first inauguration was held at Federal Hall in lower Manhattan. New York didn’t stay the capital for long; just one year later the federal government moved to Philadelphia. Both George Washington’s second inauguration and John Adams’s only inauguration were held inside Congress Hall, the building Congress was using during its stay in the city.

Of course, once Washington, D.C. had been built and the federal government moved in, the tradition began that the president’s inauguration should be held at the U.S. Capitol Building, where Congress actually meets. However, there have been exceptions.

  • In 1814, British troops burned Washington, D.C. After the war ended, the White House and U.S. Capitol had to be rebuilt, so Congress temporarily met in a less-badly-damaged brick building on the site where the Supreme Court sits today. It was in front of this “Old Brick Capitol” that James Monroe’s inauguration in 1817 was held.
  • John Tyler was sworn in at the Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel in Washington, D.C.
  • When Abraham Lincoln died, the Chief Justice and Cabinet found his vice-president, Andrew Johnson, in his room at the Kirkwood House a few blocks away and held a quick inaugural ceremony there.
  • Similarly, Chester Alan Arthur was at his home in New York when he received a telegram telling him that James Abram Garfield had died, and went out to find a local judge who could swear him in. After taking the oath, Arthur set out for Washington, D.C., where he could have a more traditional inauguration ceremony at the Capitol.
  • Theodore Roosevelt rushed to Buffalo, New York when he heard that William McKinley had been shot, only to be informed on the way there that McKinley had died. His inauguration was thus held in Buffalo.
  • Calvin Coolidge was at his home in Vermont when he heard of Warren G. Harding’s death, and had his father – a notary public – swear him in as President in front of a crowd of reporters that had gathered at his house.
  • Harry S Truman’s first inauguration took place in the White House, as did Gerald Ford’s inauguration.
  • Perhaps the most famous not-at-the-Capitol inauguration was that of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was hurriedly sworn in aboard Air Force One in the chaotic confusion after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Even ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol have moved around. In the early years, most ceremonies were held in either the Senate or House chambers inside the building, but later, it became traditional to hold the ceremony in front of the Capitol’s east side. Then, in 1981, Ronald Reagan insisted that the ceremony should be held on the west side, symbolically facing the majority of the land and people of the United States. Every presidential inauguration since then has been held on the west side of the Capitol.

Not all presidents were sworn in on a Bible

Lincoln Bible image by Michaela McNichol

In fact, when you go down the list of what each president had his hand on when he took the oath, you find that John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce were sworn in on a law book, and that Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in on John F. Kennedy’s Catholic Missal, the only religious book they could find on Air Force One. Not only that, but we just plain don’t know what 14 presidents used during their swearing-in ceremonies, as nobody thought to keep a record of that. The idea that every president must be sworn in on a Bible that has some important symbolic meaning – be it George Washington’s Bible, Abraham Lincoln’s Bible (pictured above), or a Bible that carries some deep personal meaning to the new president – is very new.

Also, while some presidents who use the Bible for their swearing-in will have the book closed and their hand on the cover, some presidents prefer to have the Bible open and their hand on a particular Bible verse. Still others will stack Bibles: Barack Obama’s second inauguration used the Lincoln Bible on top of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible, while Donald Trump used the Lincoln Bible on top of a Bible from his childhood. When George H.W. Bush was sworn in, he combined the two: his family Bible was opened and set on top of George Washington’s Bible, which was also open.

Mishaps and Misfires

There have now been 58 inauguration ceremonies, and this has meant that there have been 58 chances for something to go wrong with the inauguration. Let’s talk about some of those times that something did.

  • Andrew Jackson wanted to show himself to be a “man of the people”, so he decided that for his inauguration, the White House would be open to the public. That turned out to be a bad idea, as tens of thousands of citizens showed up and trashed the place.
  • James Buchanan had contracted food poisoning just before his inauguration, and spent his big day struggling with a bad case of diarrhea.
  • During Ulysses S. Grant’s second inauguration, the place where the inaugural ball was to be held was freezing cold and there was no time to heat the building up. People had to dance in coats and scarves, the food and drinks provided were frozen solid, and a flock of canaries brought in to please the guests all froze to death.
  • The podium at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration caught fire because the space heater beneath it had a short.
  • William Henry Harrison’s inauguration killed him. At 68 years old when he took office in 1841, he delivered the longest inaugural speech in U.S. history, all while standing on the East Portico of the Capitol in cold and mucky weather without a coat, hat, or gloves. Not long after his inauguration, he got a cold that developed into pneumonia. He died after being president for only a month, making his presidency the shortest in U.S. history.

Some More Inauguration Trivia

Lastly, let’s finish off with some quick trivia tidbits about the various inauguration ceremonies of U.S. history:

  • Thomas Jefferson was the first president to hold an inaugural parade.
  • James Madison was the first president to hold an inaugural ball. Madison was also the first president to be inaugurated during wartime.
  • John Quincy Adams was the first president to wear trousers, not breeches, to his inauguration.
  • James Buchanan’s inauguration was the first to be photographed.
  • William McKinley’s inauguration was the first to be recorded by a motion picture camera.
  • Warren G. Harding was the first president to ride in a car to his inauguration.
  • Calvin Coolidge’s inauguration was the first to be broadcast over the radio.
  • Harry S Truman’s inauguration was the first to be televised.
  • John F. Kennedy was the first president whose ceremony included an inaugural poet, with Robert Frost doing the honors. Kennedy was also the last president to wear a hat at his inauguration.
  • Jimmy Carter was the first president to make sure his inauguration was handicapped-accessible.
  • Bill Clinton’s inauguration was the first to be streamed on the Internet.


Why is January 1st the First Day of the Year?

Happy Ne Year 2017 by Covi

Happy New Year, Cat Flaggers! 2016 is over, and 2017 has arrived! But… why? Why is January 1st the first day of the year? After all, the end of one year and start of another is a bit of an arbitrary distinction.

The calendar we Americans use, and most of the rest of the world also uses, is known as the Gregorian calendar. It was designed by two men, Aloysius Lilius and Christopher Clavius, and proclaimed by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582. The new calendar was immediately made the official calendar of the Roman Catholic Church and heavily-Catholic countries like Spain, Italy, and Poland. However, it was only gradually adopted by non-Catholic countries. Britain and her then-colonies in America didn’t switch to it until 1752, when George Washington was 20 years old. Russia didn’t start using it until 1918, Greece didn’t adopt it until 1923, and it wasn’t until 1926 that Turkey began to use it! Even today, three countries – Ethiopia, Iran and Afghanistan – have refused to use it.

It was the Gregorian calendar that standardized January 1st as the start of the new year. But again, the question is why. Well, the Gregorian calendar was based on the earlier Julian calendar, which was designed by none other than Julius Caesar and had been used in Europe since he proclaimed it throughout the Roman Empire in 45 BC. His calendar, in turn, was based on the ancient Roman calendar that Romans had been using for centuries before Caesar came along.

According to Roman traditional legends, the original calendar adopted at the foundation of Rome had 10 months – March, April, May, June, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. It was 304 days long, but had an odd feature – almost the entire season of winter wasn’t counted. The year would end and 51 additional days would pass before the next one would begin. Roman historians claimed that Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, added two months to account for those winter days: January (in honor of the Roman god Janus) and February (which would be honored by the Roman purification festival, Februa). It made sense for January 1st to be the start of the new year, since it celebrated the god of beginnings and transitions.

This revised Roman calendar was now 355 days long, but this meant seasonal festivals tied to solstices and equinoxes would quickly fall out of alignment, leading to such confusing situations as spring festivals being celebrated when it was still winter. So, Romans would periodically add an additional “bonus” month named Mercedonius of varying length to get everything back into alignment. Years that featured Mercedonius would be 377 or 378 days long. Rome’s leaders were supposed to study the stars and the seasons to decide when to add this bonus month, but instead they often added it in years where it wasn’t needed to extend their terms of office and those of their cronies. Julius Caesar’s new calendar ditched Mercedonius entirely, instead decreeing that every fourth year would be a “leap year” that gave an extra day to February, the shortest month. Later Roman emperors would also change the names of two of the months, Quintilis becoming July and Sextilis becoming August.

Obviously, this calendar survived the fall of the Roman Empire, in large part because Christians used it to calculate the dates of their most important holidays, such as Easter and Christmas. However, Christians were not so thrilled to honor a pagan god they didn’t worship by starting the year on the first day of his month. While the Roman Catholic Church continued to officially count January 1st as New Year’s Day, various countries started using other dates to start their years, such as Christmas or Easter. The French and English counted March 25, the date of the Annunciation, as New Year’s Day. In France, the New Year celebration lasted a whole week and ended on April 1st.

This brings me back to Pope Gregory XIII and his decision to change the calendar. It turned out Julius Caesar’s calendar reform wasn’t perfect. The orbit of the Earth around the sun is actually 365.25636 days, so having a leap year every four years, over the course of many centuries, caused the Julian calendar to go ever so slightly out of alignment with the seasons. The Gregorian calendar fixed this by having October 4, 1582, followed immediately by October 15, 1582, and then changing the leap year formula a bit. Years that are divisible by 100 (1700, 1800, 1900, etc.) would NOT be leap years, UNLESS they were ALSO divisible by 400 (1600, 2000, etc.). This simple(ish) change makes our calendar so accurate, it has an error of 1 day per 7,700 years.

Nothing in any of this required the new year to start on any particular day, but since the Catholic Church had always officially used January 1st, Pope Gregory XIII held that New Year’s Day on his calendar would continue to fall on that date. As country after country adopted his calendar, they also adopted his New Year’s Day. In so doing, they were essentially returning to an earlier tradition.

Interestingly, some have speculated that April Fool’s Day exists because of this change. The story goes that after France adopted the Gregorian calendar, Frenchmen who honored New Year’s Day on January 1st would play pranks on those who continued to celebrate it from March 25 to April 1st instead of getting with the times.

So, why do we celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1st? Because the ancient Romans and the Catholic Church did. History can be funny like that.


Common Misconceptions About the Nativity

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst

“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst

I have been open on this blog before about my Christian faith, and this is one of the most important times of year for me as we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior. However, many aspects of the story we tell about the first Christmas are actually based not on the Bible but on popular culture, so I thought it would be fun to make a quick Christmas special blog sharing a few less well known facts about that most Holy of nights that even most Christians don’t know.

Myth: Jesus was born on December 25, 1 A.D.

The Truth: The Bible doesn’t actually tell us when Jesus was born.

The early Christian church had a habit of selecting dates for important Christian holidays so that they fell on or near Roman pagan festivals, in order to make things a little easier and more comfortable for converts to the faith. Christmas was timed to coincide with Saturnalia, the traditional Roman winter solstice celebration. Many common Christmas traditions from the hanging of wreaths to the use of mistletoe are originally pagan, not Christian, traditions.

As for the year Jesus was born, it is understandable that people think he was born in 1 A.D. After all, A.D. stands for Anno Domini (Latin for “In the Year of the Lord”) and B.C. stands for “Before Christ”. Indeed, when Dionysius Exiguus devised this system in 525 A.D., it was his intention to have 1 A.D. mark the year Jesus was born. But he miscalculated. Almost all scholars today agree that Jesus had to have been born between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C., since King Herod was an important part of the Biblical story and he was simply not alive anymore in 1 A.D.

Myth: The three wise men came on the night Jesus was born

The Truth: Actually, the Bible implies the “newborn King” might have already been two years old when they showed up with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The story is told in Matthew 2:1-18. It says an unspecified number of men referred to as “Magi” (members of the Persian priesthood, who were noted at the time as the world’s best astrologers) came looking for Jesus after seeing a new star in the sky, following it to Bethlehem. We assume there were three of them, since they brought three gifts, but that’s just a guess. In any case, the Bible says they arrived at Mary and Joseph’s house. Not a manger, where Jesus was born, but a house. I think it’s safe to assume there has been some time between His birth and their arrival.

Another clue to Jesus’s age when these visitors arrived is the actions King Herod took when he found out about all this. The Bible tells how he killed all boys in Bethlehem who were two years old and under; Joseph and Mary managed to escape with the young Jesus because they had been warned in a dream. Why two years old? Perhaps at this time Jesus was already two years old, or perhaps Herod was just being thorough.

In any case, I think the reason for the misconception is our Nativity scenes, which traditionally show three wise men in the manger with the shepherds, in order to make sure they are included in the story, even though their story is actually a different one that occurred some time later.

Myth: Jesus Christ was the name given to the newborn Lord at His birth by Mary and Joseph

The Truth: The name “Jesus Christ” was given to Him later by the Christian faithful.

“Christ” is an honorific religious title, not His last name. Jews in New Testament times generally didn’t have last names. “Christ” comes from the Greek “Christos”, the closest translation the writers of the New Testament could come up with for the fundamentally Hebrew concept of the Messiah – the anointed savior of the children of Israel prophesied in the Jewish Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament. Christians believe Jesus is the Messiah, and so took to calling him Jesus Christ as a way of quickly asserting their faith in Him.

As for His name, when He was alive it would actually have been Yeshua, a Hebrew variant of Joshua. Of course, as I mentioned before, the New Testament was written in Greek, and Greek simply doesn’t have the alphabet to accurately translate that name, so they rendered it as closely as they could: Iesous. We have evidence from other, non-Christian writings of the time that men named “Yeshua” would often have their names translated as “Iesous” in Greek. In any case, the Greek “Iesous” became the Latin “Iesus”, which became our English “Jesus”.

I hope you enjoyed this short little Cat Flag special. However you celebrate the holiday, I hope you have a wonderful one.