Christmas nativity scenes’ origin


This video from Britain says about itself:

Mr Bean recreates the nativity using toys in a shop at Christmas. From Merry Christmas Mr Bean.

From Smithsonian.com in the USA:

December 14, 2012 12:28 pm

The First Nativity Scene Was Created in 1223

At some point in childhood, many kids don a blue shawl or fake beard and act out the nativity scene in front of doting parents and grandparents. Whether performed by children, set up as little figurines in a home or installed as a life-size tableau in front of a church, these scenes are a staple of the Christmas holidays. But when did this tradition begin?

Slate explores the history of the nativity scene:

Blame St. Francis of Assisi, who is credited with staging the first nativity scene in 1223. The only historical account we have of Francis’ nativity scene comes from The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan monk who was born five years before Francis’ death.

According to Bonaventure’s biography, St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” (Francis was supposedly so overcome by emotion that he couldn’t say “Jesus.”) Bonaventure also claims that the hay used by Francis miraculously acquired the power to cure local cattle diseases and pestilences.

The nativity scene’s popularity took off from there. Within a couple of centuries, nativity scenes had spread throughout Europe. We don’t know if people actually played Mary and Joseph during Francis’ time, or whether they just imagined those figures’ presence. We do know that later scenes began incorporating dioramas and life actors, and the cast of characters gradually expanded beyond Mary, Joseph and sweet baby Jesus, to sometimes include an entire village.

Nativity buffs will know, however, that the familiar cast of characters relied upon today—the three wise men and the shepherds—is not biblically accurate. Of the New Testament’s four gospels, only Matthew and Luke describe Jesus’ birth. Matthew mentions wise men, while Luke comments on shepherds. But nowhere in the Bible do shepherds and wise men appear together. What’s worse, no one mentions donkeys, oxen, cattle or other farmyard friends in conjunction with Jesus’ birth. But what would a nativity scene be without those staples? Luckily for all the kids cast as King #2 or random shepherd, some artistic interpretation is permitted.

Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here

More from Smithsonian.com:

That Moon on Your Christmas Card
Christmas Shopping Around the World

Should My Child Believe in Christmas If I Don’t? Here.

Basking shark migration from Ireland to Africa


This video from Ireland is called Monster Munch Basking Shark Project.

From IrishCentral:

Basking sharks leave Irish waters in search of winter sun

Previously hunted off the coast of Ireland, harmless Basking Sharks are studied intently by Irish group

By EMMETT JOHNSTON, IrishCentral Contributing Writer

Published Sunday, December 23, 2012, 7:13 AM

‘Banba’ a female basking shark tagged in July with a satellite transmitter off Malin head, Co. Donegal has just released its transmitter west of the Cape Verde Islands, over 5000km away from where it was originally tagged.

The five meter long female shark was one of five basking sharks tagged as part of the Monster Munch Basking Shark Community Awareness Project run by the Irish Basking Shark Study Group in association with the Inishowen Development Partnership and Queens University Belfast.

The movement by the shark ‘Banba’ into warm tropical waters off West Africa, coupled with similar findings by leading American shark biologist Greg Skomal in the western Atlantic, questions the validity of the established theory that basking sharks inhabit temperate waters only. Previous basking shark tracking studies undertaken in the north east Atlantic have only recorded shark movements within temperate waters.

The majority of tracked sharks have displayed a seasonal onshore – offshore migratory pattern, with movements of one or two hundred miles offshore onto the continental shelf edge during winter and return shifts to coastal waters during summer months. This seasonal pattern allows the sharks to feed year round on copepods, a type of zooplankton, their stable food source. However, the recording of this magnificent journey by a basking shark from Malin head to warmer tropical waters questions many of the fundamental theories marine biologists have regarding the species and its lifecycle.

Basking sharks were once hunted off the coasts of Ireland, but they are now classed as endangered in the North Atlantic. The Irish Basking Shark Study Group have been pioneering research on the iconic marine leviathan which can weigh more than an African elephant and grow to over 11m in length. In recent years the group have had internationally significant findings in DNA sampling, population surveys, tagging and tracking.

The groups’ motivation is to see the shark protected in Irish waters, one of the last western European territorial water bodies where they remain unprotected. Emmett Johnston, a co-founder of the group, spoke briefly about Banba’s journey. “The group are delighted with the finding, but it is a bit premature to be rushing out to change the shark biology books. We are awaiting the pop-off of the remaining three satellite transmitters attached this summer, recovering five complete basking shark tracks will allow us to compare the data and make informed conclusions. Until then there is not much we can say other than this is a highly unusual place to find a species that is presumed to inhabit temperate waters.”

Dutch army injures Afghan child


This video from England says about itself:

Nov 6, 2012

On the 11th anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan, killed Afghan civilians and British soldiers are remembered at a Naming of the Dead ceremony in London.

According to NOS TV in the Netherlands today, a Dutch military vehicle in Khanabad in Afghanistan has collided with an Afghan child.

The child was severely injured.

Dutch soldiers are part of the NATO occupation force in Kunduz province; jointly with the German army, which caused already more than one bloodbath in Kunduz.

Gay Roman Catholic saints


This music video is called Good King Wenceslas; music by The Irish Rovers.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Gay king Wenceslas comes out…

Sunday 23 December 2012

Despite the Vatican’s rabid homophobia today, with persecution of gay priests and bishops as well as its campaigning against same-sex unions and marriage, the church actually has a rich history of gay players in its colourful history.

As it’s Christmas let’s start with Good King Wenceslas, who as everyone knows went out on the Feast of Stephen when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.

This Czech saint was declared king of Bohemia after a domestic coup.

He didn’t rule for long before he was killed by his jealous brother Boleslas. Wenceslas asked for forgiveness for his murderer as his dying wish. A saintly act indeed.

So what’s the story in the famous carol? The king went out on a frosty night with his page to collect logs.

His page Podiven had no shoes but the saintly king simply commanded him to walk in his royal footprints.

Miraculously the footprints proved hot and the page’s feet stayed warm and toasty “where the saint had treaded.”

Podiven, church history relates, was the most trustworthy and closest of all the king’s many young pages. But it seems he was bit special in the king’s affections.

The earliest accounts of Wenceslas’s life mention this close relationship with the page, who is described as a chamber valet to the king.

Wenceslas, it seems, used to wake his page in the middle of the night to join him in doing “charitable works.”

After the king’s murder Podiven was certainly overcome by grief.

Eventually Wenceslas’s brother had Podiven killed to stop him from spreading stories of the saintly Wenceslas and the page’s undying love for him.

Podiven’s slaughtered body, legend has it, remained incorrupt despite being hung outdoors on a gibbet for over three years.

Both Wenceslas and his beloved Podiven are buried side by side at St Vitus Cathedral in Prague.

Now meet Sergius and Bacchus, one of the best-known gay couples in Christian history.

They were third-century Roman soldiers who are commemorated as martyrs by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Church history tells us the two were officers in Galerius‘s army, and were held high in his favour until they were exposed as secret Christians. They were tortured and beheaded.

The close friendship between the two was legendary in church records, making them one of the best-known examples of paired saints.

This closeness has led many historians to suggest that their relationship was a romantic homosexual one – common and totally acceptable in the Roman army – making Sergius and Bacchus great heroes in today’s gay Christian community.

Lastly let’s look at a more modern and more tragic story.

In 2010 Pope Benedict honoured the 19th-century English theologian cardinal John Henry Newman with beatification – the first step to eventual sainthood.

Newman was a good signing, as they say in the Premier League.

He was a leading Church of England cleric and writer who, in the ferment of discontent with the established church in 1845, jumped the Anglican ship and joined the Church of Rome.

His lifelong partner Ambrose St John went with him.

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has made a study of Newman’s homosexual orientation.

“Newman and St John were mentally and spiritually in love, sharing a long-term same-sex relationship.

“They were inseparable. They lived together for over 30 years, like a married husband and wife,” says Tachell.

“Newman wrote in his diary about Ambrose’s love for him: ‘From the first he loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable.’ He later added: ‘As far as this world was concerned, I was his first and last’,” added Tatchell.

Reflecting on St John’s death, Newman stated: “This is the greatest affliction I have had in my life … he was my earthly light.”

Cardinal Newman and Ambrose St John were buried side-by-side in the same grave when Newman died in 1890.

It was what Newman wanted. He wrote to his executors shortly before his death, stating emphatically: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St John’s grave – and I give this as my last, my imperative will.”

Prior to making Newman a saint and to clean up his image in its eyes, the Vatican sought to suppress knowledge of Newman’s relationship with St John.

In 2011 – against Newman’s direct instructions – it ordered that his grave be dug up to separate the two men and to turn Newman’s bones into holy relics.

However, the grave was empty. His remains had fully decomposed. The Vatican’s heartless plans were defeated by worms and decay.

The Vatican propaganda machine has gone out of its way to rubbish claims that Newman was gay. As a cardinal and deeply devout Catholic, they say he would never have a gay relationship.

This is nonsense. Thousands of Catholics including priests, bishops, cardinals and even saints are or were gay.

The Catholic hierarchy denies Newman’s homosexuality in the same way that it denies the existence of thousands of gay clerics.

The Vatican has form for lying and suppressing the truth. It lied, for example, when it claimed that condoms had tiny holes through which the HIV virus could pass.

Down the ages, lots of clergy have had gay relationships.

Many are in long-term gay relationships. Why should anyone be surprised by the suggestion that Cardinal Newman too was gay?

Perhaps we should look to Newman’s memorial stone at Birmingham Oratory for clues.

It has this Latin inscription.

“Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem” – from shadow and images into truth.

Was this Newman and Ambrose St John finally “coming out”?

Good Bewick’s swans news


The largest-ever family of Bewick's swans has arrived for winter, Slimbridge wildfowl reserve reports

From the BBC:

24 December 2012 Last updated at 00:29

Bewick’s swans: Baby boost for threatened birds

By Michelle Warwicker, BBC Nature

Northwest Europe’s threatened Bewick’s swan population has been boosted by a bumper year for chicks.

Numbers of the bird have declined dramatically since the 1990s.

Up to 7,000 Bewick’s swans usually migrate to the UK, arriving in October and flying back to Russia in March.

But surveys this year show the number of young among these wintering flocks has risen to 17.6%, compared to an average of around 10% over the past 10 years.

Ornithologists have reported an overall average of 14% young swans in flocks across northern Europe, the highest since 2001.

“It really is fantastic to see so many cygnets arriving back. They have certainly been few and far between in recent years,” said Julia Newth from the Wildfowl and Wetlands trust (WWT).

Bewick’s swans travel 2,500 miles (4,000km) from their breeding grounds within the Arctic tundra in Russia to spend the winter in the warmer British Isles and other parts of northern Europe, such as the Netherlands and Germany.

The smallest swan in Europe, Bewick’s swans are distinguishable from fellow migrant whooper swans by their size and small yellow blob on their black beaks, rather than the whooper’s yellow wedge.

Experts are still trying to understand what has caused this year’s bumper breeding session.

“[It's] the golden question that we don’t have the answer to yet,” said Ms Newth.

“Weather is thought to be a big factor, but it is not yet fully clear so we can only speculate at this stage.”

Ornithologists are also still trying to find out why the northwest Europe Bewick’s swan population has been in dramatic decline.

Known dangers to swans include illegal shooting and lead poisoning, according to the WWT.

Swans eat grit to help their digestion. But accidental ingestion of spent lead gunshot on the ground can cause severe poisoning.

Post mortem tests at WWT reserves have found that almost a quarter of dead swans found at the sites had died from lead poisoning, according to the organisation.

Man-made structures such as pylons, wind-turbines and power lines also pose threats to flying swans as the birds’ large size makes them unable to manoeuvre quickly in-flight to avoid danger.

But the higher number of cygnets reported across northern Europe this year “will hopefully boost [the swan's] numbers”, said Ms Newth.

And the arrival of an adult breeding pair of Bewick’s swans with six cygnets in tow at the WWT Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire is the largest Bewick’s swan family recorded at the site.

“We still need to find out what is driving down Bewick’s swan numbers,” said Ms Newth.

“But this year’s good breeding season is very welcome news.”

Rhesus monkeys and generosity, research


This video about rhesus macaques is called Monkey Troop Mourns Loss of Baby.

From the Indo-Asian News Service:

Even monkey brains are wired to give

Monday 24th December, 2012

Researchers have found, as the season for giving sets in, that even monkey brains respond to the act of giving.

During a task involving rhesus macaques, three distinct areas of the brain were found to be involved in weighing benefits to oneself against benefits to the other, according to Duke University researchers.

The team used sensitive electrodes to detect the activity of individual neurons (nerve cells) as the animals weighed different scenarios, whether to reward themselves, the other monkey or nobody at all, the journal Nature Neuroscience reports.

Calculating the social aspects of the reward system seems to be a combination of action by two centres involved in calculating all sorts of rewards and a third centre that adds the social dimension, says Michael Platt, director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences who led the study, according to a Duke statement.

Using a computer screen to allocate juice rewards, the monkeys preferred to reward themselves first and foremost. But they also chose to reward the other monkey when it was either that or nothing for either of them.

They also were more likely to give the reward to a monkey they knew over one they didn’t, and preferred to give to lower status than higher status monkeys, and had almost no interest in giving the juice to an inanimate object.

Rhesus macaques find darker red skin more attractive: here.