Wednesday, December 05, 2012

pa rum pa pum pum ...

It's that time of year again, when the lights are up and the radio stations switch to an all holiday music format. After hearing "Do You Hear What I Hear," "The Little Drummer Boy," and other songs about the Nativity already one time too many it occurred to me — what ever happened to all the gold and frankincense and myrrh that the Three Wise Men brought with them as gifts? It's not like the baby Jesus had a college fund ...

The Three Magi, 7th-century mosaic, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Magi
But kidding aside, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh got me thinking about the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas, one of the nicest parts of the holiday, but also the one most fraught with anxiety. Gift giving can be heartfelt, but it can also cause pressure and unnecessary expense. We give gifts out of duty, obligation, friendship, or love. The Magi presented their gifts as an act of worship.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasures and presented him with the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. — Matthew 2:11
The Magi, Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior, are only mentioned in one book of the Bible, Matthew. After their visit and homage to the infant Jesus they disappear from the story. Like many of the stories and imagery from the Bible, the gifts from the three kings from the Orient were symbolic.
Gold was of great value and an offering presented to kings — Jesus was proclaimed King by the Wise Men. 
Frankincense is used in worship, as incense is still used today, and represented the child's divinity. 
Myrrh was used chiefly in embalming the dead, and represented bitterness — the humanity, suffering, and eventual death that awaits us all.
If one is of a more literal turn of mind, going back to my original question of what may have happened to the gifts of the Magi, I guess it could be surmised that Joseph may have used the gold to help pay for the holy family's lodging and travel expenses to Egypt and elsewhere. Christmas and Jesus's birth is celebrated in December, which has its origins in the Roman holiday Saturnalia, a festival of light leading up to the winter solstice. The extended holiday period ran from December 17-23 and was an occasion for gift giving. The season was as busy and festive for the ancient Romans as our current Christmas season is for us:
It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business. … Were you here, I would willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga. — Seneca
Dice players, Roman fresco from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio (VI 10,1.19, room b), Pompeii

Sound familiar?

I have scaled way back on the gift giving over the years. I put more energy into keeping in touch with loved one with holiday cards. But I also think that we all have way too much stuff in our lives. I don't want to add to someone else's re-gifting pile. I tend these days to concentrate at Christmas on the kid. It is most fun to give her a present and to watch her receive them.

The Origin of American Christmas Myth and Customs
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