Photo by the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

ON THE COVER: A radiant angel announces Jesus’ birth to a group of shepherds tending their flock at night, in a manuscript illumination from a Book of Hours (prayer book), dated to 1430 in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The angel’s banner reads, in Latin: Gloria in excelsis Deo—“Glory to God in the highest!” (Luke 2:14). Caught by surprise, the shepherds abandon their simple meal of bread and cheese, put on their shoes and head to Bethlehem. As shown in the surrounding roundels, they travel on foot (upper right) to see the babe (lower right), and then celebrate joyously by dancing to bagpipe music (bottom left).

The Bible doesn’t say what time of year Jesus was born. Luke hints that it might have been during the warm spring months of lambing time, when shepherds typically slept outside with their flocks; but for over 1,500 years, Jesus’ birth has been celebrated in the middle of winter. In “How December 25 Became Christmas,” Andrew McGowan explains how Christians arrived at the traditional date for Jesus’ birth.