White Christmas

…are you ready for Christmas???

I am… not. I still have stockings to finish up, a tree skirt to complete, several last minute presents to get, some more Nativity dolls to crochet, and some more baking to do. So, if you don’t see me for a while, that’s what I am doing!

Still! There is one thing that I sadly cannot get for my kids, no matter how much they beg for it: snow.

What can I say? We live in the Pacific Northwest! Snow isn’t really a thing over here.

Which made last Christmas all the more magical.

You see, Christmas Eve, it started snowing. Hard. We put our kids to bed and then my husband and I sat with the lights off looking at the snow that were falling. It was amazing. And then? The snow stuck for the entire Christmas. Several of our friends couldn’t even make it to Christmas mass!

Will that happen this year? According to our weather report: no. According to the weather report, we should expect a brief respite from rain this Christmas and then more rain. (Did I mentioned that we live in the Pacific Northwest, the land of rain and more rain?)

Still, I must admit that I am dreaming of snow. I’ve told the kids to ask God for snow and I admit I am praying for it as well, despite how hopeless the weather report looks.

And so, just before Christmas, I would like to feature this picture of St. Joseph and Mary taking part of the census in Bethlehem. In the snow.

The Census at Bethlehem, by Pieter Brugel the Elder, c. 1566. Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels, Belgium. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
The Census at Bethlehem, by Pieter Brugel the Elder, c. 1566. Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels, Belgium.

Look at it closely! If need be, click the picture, which will show you a bigger image of it. There’s a lot going on, isn’t there? It can be hard to spot the Virgin Mary and even harder to spot St. Joseph! So, take a look at the bottom center. There is a woman in a blue mantle which covers her entire body who is sitting on a donkey. That is the Virgin Mary! The man who seems to be leader her with the hat is St. Joseph.

They’re in the midst of a throng of people all gathered together taking the census, which is the whole reason why they came to Bethlehem in the first place. Remember?


Luke 2

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. 2This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. 4And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

But, the picture is not trying to be faithful to the Bethlehem scenery. Hardly! Instead, this takes place in what was (at the time) a modern sort of village in the Netherlands. In fact, if you look closely at the inn, you’ll see a Habsburg double-headed eagle, which was the emblem for the Holy Roman Empire. There are children playing in the snow, throwing snowballs at each other and playing with toys on the ice. There are peasants all around doing their work, such as constructing houses, bringing out bales of hay, and even slaughtering a pig. There’s even a tiny little shack with a man with a clapper who is warning people to stay away because he is a leper. And so, it is a typical scene in a typical village set in the Netherlands, with a religious twist.

Before this picture, snowy landscapes were not really a common thing for artists depicting the Holy Family in Bethlehem. Which seems strange to me now, since there are so many Christmas songs about snow and so many artworks of snowy places that are Christmas themed! Yet, this was really one of the first major artworks that showed a snowy landscape, period. Yet, it is really a beautiful one that captures the snowy scene with much love, while making the viewer aware of the harshness of the weather.

And it highlights something very important that many of artworks of the Nativity tend to miss: the ordinariness of Mary and Joseph’s visit to Bethlehem. The reason why they couldn’t stay at the inn was because there were too many people in the inn. The reason why there were too many people in the inn was because of the census of Bethlehem. And so I think it is a very fitting image to have the Holy Family (with Jesus still in the womb!) in the midst of throngs of people who are all bustling about, doing their own thing, unaware of the wonder which is about to happen when finally the Virgin Mary gives birth to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World.

As we bustle about getting ready for the Christmas celebration, may we take time to reflect and meditate on our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World.

Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus, Come!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of four, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer.

One thought on “White Christmas

  • April 11, 2020 at 10:14 pm

    Dear Karina, I recently became interested in this masterpiuece and read tha Pieter Brueghel the Jounger with his deciples in his study produced at least 12 ! almost identical copies of the original made by his father. I’m afraid the picture in your article shows such a copy, which happens to hang on the far end of the same hall with the original… How can one tell? Well, one of the differences is that near the lower right corner in the original a kneeling figure is clearly visible (tying his skates?) and this figure is absent in this copy (and maybe in other copies too). Hanan. B.


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