Most of us take the rituals and customs of Christmas at face value and don’t think about how weird and wondrous they truly are. Where would Christmas be without angels? From Gabriel’s startling announcement to Mary and Joseph, to lovable but bumbling Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, Linus’s endearing monologue in A Charlie Brown Christmas, and art and song, angels have been there at key junctures to herald glad tidings of great joy, preclude supernatural misunderstandings, and keep an eye on things from atop the Christmas tree.
The Nativity story itself begins with the angel Gabriel announcing to the teenage virgin Mary that she was “highly favored” by God, would bear a child, Jesus, via a visitation by the Holy Ghost, and that He would be the Son of God and reign forever. So that her betrothed, Joseph, a carpenter, would know all was kosher, Gabriel also informed him of the deal. Gabriel delivered only Big Messages for God throughout the Bible, including this, arguably the most important message in the history of mankind.
After Mary and Joseph’s very late-term journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, angels got involved again, announcing the arrival of Jesus to shepherds, who were minding their own business outside of town when they had a noteworthy visitor.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this [shall be] a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. Luke 2:8-14
When Christopher Shea — just seven years old at the time — as Linus recited this passage in 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, not only did he reaffirm the “true meaning of Christmas,” but it’s one of the great moments in TV history – not a dry eye in the house.
Imagine the shock and awe for these poor shepherds, who were near the bottom of the occupational org chart, as they sat quietly in the dark thinking pastoral thoughts when a blinding light exploded around them and an angel told them of the birth of the Messiah. Short of a meteor strike at their feet, there WERE no blinding lights at night at the time. And then, just to make sure they were paying attention, an entire host of beaming angels appeared chanting and singing and causing a commotion such as neither the shepherds nor their sheep could have imagined in their wildest dreams.
Given the visual and spiritual pop of an angelic visitation, it’s no wonder angels have figured so prominently in the arts. Among the most famous and profound depictions of the Annunciation to Mary are Botticelli’s Cestello Annunciation (see top) and Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini (above). Angels abound in manger adoration works by Rembrandt, Bassano, and El Greco.
Closer to home, angels are a staple of Christmas decorations of every kind and of every material including manger scenes, ornaments, Christmas cards, and of course, Christmas tree toppers. Why angels on the top of trees? Symbolically, angels come from on high and we often visualize them looking down benevolently upon mankind as we cast about in the dust. Specifically, the angels that appeared to the shepherds spread the Good News from above creating an indelible Christmas image. On the practical side, the flowy, circular garments of angels present a perfect conical receptacle for the top of the tree.
Many a beloved Christmas carol speaks of angelic activity, usually heralding the arrival of the newborn King: “Angels From the Realms of Glory,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and “Gabriel’s Message” (above) are but a few. In a time of sorrow, medieval mystic Henry Suso had angels come to him in a dream, taking him by the hand in a dance while one sang a song. We he awoke, Suso wrote down the song the angel had sung as “Good Christian Men Rejoice.”
In Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s suicidal George Bailey wonders what the world would be like without him and his apprentice guardian angel Clarence shows him. Clarence is something of a bumbler who has yet to earn his angel wings, but when George sees what his contributions and sacrifices have brought to his family, friends, and town, he regains his zest for life and Clarence finally hears his little bell ring. Clarence is perhaps the most “human” angel presented in mainstream Christmas media.
A close second might be the deeply touching, ineffably sad children’s book and TV movie, The Littlest Angel, written in 1946 by Charles Tazewell. One of the best-selling children’s books of all time, it tells the story of a young shepherd boy who dies accidentally and goes to heaven, but who can’t get it together as an angel. Finally, an understanding elder angel realizes that he’s homesick and allows the boy angel to visit Earth to retrieve a box of his most treasured possessions. When it comes time for Jesus to be born on Earth, The Littlest Angel gives his precious box to baby Jesus, but is worried that his gift is too humble. However, God is so pleased that he transforms the box into The Star of Bethlehem. The 1969 TV movie starring Johnny Whitaker is wonderful as well.
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