This article appeared in From the Housetops, the world's best Catholic quarterly magazine.
When was the first Christmas message printed in America? It had to come with European Christians, but who were the first Europeans in America? Did they come with Columbus, or did they come earlier with the Vikings; or even earlier with a band of Irish monks? The Navagatio, Saint Brendan's account of his travels across the Atlantic, certainly predates the Viking voyages by some 400 years and establishes Irish visitors as early as the Sixth Century A.D., but no evidence had ever been found to support that claim. That lack of hard evidence led author Timothy Severin to duplicate the voyage of Brendan in 1977, in a leather-covered boat built to Brendan's specifications, but unfortunately, that did little to convince the sceptics.
However, while the sceptics argued that possibility and probability do not offer proof, startling discoveries were being made in the New England states of New Hampshire and Vermont that altered the entire subject. A complex of ancient stone buildings, burial tombs, and oracle chambers, which had been under study for some time, were revealed to be Celtic not from the time of Brendan, but as far back as 800 B.C.!
The evidence was overwhelming. Scores of inscriptions found at the sites were identified as Ogham a system of cypher used by the Celts over 2500 years ago. Using the science of epigraphy the study of ancient carvings on stone Dr. Barry Fell, Harvard professor and president of the Epigraphic Society, not only identified the inscriptions, but translated them. Some identified graves, while others, taken from an oracle chamber, contained religious writings, and still others concerned land boundaries. Together, they indicated a Celtic settlement in America when that form of Ogham was in use, sometime after 800 B.C.
Further, great standing stones, surrounding one of the sites, are geometrically aligned for viewing such celestial events as the summer and winter solstices and seasonal star and lunar patterns. The parallel to Newgrange and similar structures in Ireland is remarkable. In addition to local Indian words and place names with Celtic roots, the defining and dating of pottery, tools, and implements found at the site, also confirm the settlement to be Celtic, matching items produced in the Celtic regions of western Europe during the Bronze Age.
The conclusion that a Celtic society existed in America before the time of Christ is indisputable, but what has that to do with a Christmas Card? Well, Dr. Fell released a book on his initial discoveries, entitled America B.C., and a sequence of events followed which immensely added to the evidence of another group of early settlers, and the Christmas Card they left behind.
Ida Jane Gallagher, a native West Virginian working as a free-lance historian in Connecticut, forwarded to Dr. Fell an article that she had received from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. The article described a stone carving in Wyoming County, West Virginia, similar to the ones she had photographed in New England. Discovered by two amateur archeologists in 1964, the carving was examined in 1970 by a Geological survey team, who concluded that the inscription whatever its meaning was the work of early Indians or aborigines, and of no significance, since many such undeciphered carvings existed, whose origins are shrouded in mystery. The find was forgotten for a decade until archeologist Robert Pyle learned of its existence from his assistant Tony Shields.
Shields, a former Wyoming County resident, told Pyle of carvings near his home that were similar to old runic writings. When he produced photos of the carvings as proof, an excited Pyle estimated that they had been carved between 500 and 800 A.D. Beginning in March 1982, Pyle and Shields recorded every detail of the carving in eighteen separate visits. Convinced of its importance, Pyle gave the story to a local newspaper; the editorial and photo that subsequently appeared was clipped by a reader who sent it to the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce magazine. They, in turn, sent it to Ida Jane Gallagher. She immediately arranged to visit the site.
In November 1982, Pyle led a small group up a steep bank in West Virginia to a rock ledge, and Gallagher took her first look at the 10-foot inscription carved on a recessed portion of a cliff face beneath a natural rock overhang. Convinced that it was a major find, she contacted Professor Fell, and he agreed to attempt a translation.
When Dr. Fell saw the petroglyph, he immediately recognized it as an advanced form of the Ogham script he had seen in Ireland and on the New England carvings. He began a translation from Ogham into Old Irish, from Old Irish into modern Irish, and then into English.
The message thus deciphered read:
At the time of sunrise, a ray grazes the notch on the left side on Christmas Day, the first season of the year, the season of the blessed advent of the savior Lord Christ. Behold he is born of Mary, a woman.
According to the translation, the carving was a solar calendar bearing a Christmas message! But how could a Christmas message be carved in America, in an Irish script, between 500 and 800 A.D.? Was there a mistake? The small group decided to verify the translation. Calculating the difference between the Julian calendar (used until the 16th Century) and today's Gregorian calendar, they met at the petroglyph just before sunrise on December 22, 1982. Quietly they waited as the sun climbed in the east, spilled over the mountains, and streamed its rays toward the cliff face before them. They watched in amazement as the first shaft of sunlight funnelled like a flashlight beam through a 3-sided notch in the cliff overhang and struck the center of a sun symbol on the left side of the panel. As they watched in awe, the beam pushed the shadow from left to right, slowly bathing the entire message in sunlight like a prehistoric neon sign announcing yet another Christmas, as it has done for centuries. Before their eyes, they had received a message across the ages.
Subsequent visits showed that the phenomenon only occurred at the winter solstice; and at other times of the year the sun only partially lit the message. In 1985, the distinguished Celtic scholar, Professor Robert T. Meyer visited the site and responded to a question regarding its authenticity in these words:
Nobody could have faked this sort of thing unless they had a very deep knowledge of Celtic philosophy, for this is very archaic, and probably from the sixth or seventh centuries. This, for Celtic scholars, is probably at least as important as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls . . . because it shows that Irish Monks, I suppose, came here, I would say, about 1500 years ago.
Since that time, other Ogham carvings have been discovered in West Virginia at Bears's Fork in Fayette County and Horse Creek in Boone's County; as well as at Red River Gorge in Kentucky; Shell Rock Canyon, Colorado, and Newfoundland!
As for the Wyoming County petroglyph, it remains for all to see: America's first Christmas message, left between 500 and 800 A.D., by Irish Christian missionaries. We may never know the identity of the person or persons who carved the message, but the fact that it exists, provides important proof of the old claim that Irish monks sailed to America to spread the gospel long before Columbus and the Vikings. An Irish monk named Brendan wrote of that in the Sixth Century, but no one believed him. Now, in view of the earlier settlements found in New England, it should be obvious that the Irish had the map all along.