The joy of Christmas is nearer, drawing in a beehive of activities allied to it. The Christian Churches here, as in all parts of the world, are livened up for the yearly holy event marking the birth of baby Jesus, followed by the close of another year. Most educational institutions are on preparatory mode for holding mid-term exams prior to the culmination of the vacation season.
Plans are being made for annual vacations, or joyous activities, or gourmet feasts, or family get-togethers. Banking on the commercial value of the holiday season, the hospitality industry and other retailing sectors including big Malls are once again out with window decorations, dangling fantasies and other crowd-tickler marketing gimmicks through the media, web and signposts.
One is baffled and bewildered by the choice of innovative merchandize, latest tech trends, etc, available. “Happy Shopping Holidays” – three charming words dominate this period to augment the marketing campaigns.
A special event at all times to me, Christmas, like Easter, has a considerable period of preparation. The Gospel of St. Matthew relates so briefly about preparations that had taken place some 2020 years ago when, three wise men, proficient in astronomy and astrology, turned their heads up to gaze at a brilliant star that would set them on a journey. Theirs was a spiritual desire to find and adore a new-born child – to lay their gifts contained in caskets of odoriferous wood at the child’s tiny feet – gifts of pure gold (asserting the kingship of Christ), frankincense (Christ’s divinity) and myrrh (that He was man, and doomed to death).
Their long and perilous journey through “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star” culminated in success when they found the new-born Jesus not in the stable, as usually depicted in the scene by artists, but in a roofed house where the three holy ones were temporarily lodged. These three wise men (or kings) would be the first to acknowledge Christ.
These wise men, assumed to be three given that three gifts were given in homage of Christ’s birth, are identified by various names, but generally known as Balthazar, Melchior and C(G)aspar since the ninth century (1). Believed to be Babylonian names, according to an old valuable book about Virgin Mary, they probably hail from the city of Séleucide which was the abode of the most celebrated astronomers of antiquity (2).
The Bible also relates to another journey during that period, taken place hundreds of miles away from the path the Magi would travel. Carpenter Joseph of Nazareth in Galilee accompanied by his wife Mary was on their way to Bethlehem of Judea, to register their names and pay tribute-money owing to the Roman Census of population and landed possessions.
Besides his beloved pregnant wife riding on a donkey, Joseph, humble, modest and retiring, was devoid of possession of anything of great value except for few clothes and the usual provisions for their painful journey of possibly five days. Their basket made of palm leaves could have included dates, figs, raisins, thin cakes of barley meal, earthen vessel to hold water, and the most precious swaddling-bands Mary’s hands had prepared to envelop her child. The census, made in the late autumn or early winter when agricultural work had ceased, might have attracted great concourse of people to the region that accommodation in cells of caravansaries in Bethlehem were unavailable.
Whatever the reason, upon their arrival at Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary sought shelter in a stable in the interior of a little cavern located in the suburbs which served as a stable and sometimes as refuge for the shepherds in cold and stormy nights. In there, after a good lengthy time following the hour of the Nativity, the new-born infant was adored by the shepherds as the Christkindl lay in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.
The adoration of the shepherds and the Magi is depicted in several movies. One of the realistic among them appears in the initial scenes of director William Wyler’s cinematic triumph, Ben-Hur (1959), its devotional ambiance enhanced by the Academy Award winning music score of Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995). Watching Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” is an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Its grandeur and spectacle, colourful characters, richness of its screenplay, excellent direction, fantastic production values, the realistic action sequence of the chariot race, the many visual symbolic threads woven into the story such as water accentuated as an agent of renewal, the dramatic effect emphasized without showing Christ’s face, the transition from full orchestra to organ during the sequences in which Christ appears, and most importantly, its story about a rich man passing through the eye of the needle, had caught up my imagination that “Ben-Hur” rates the highest number of times I have seen a movie.
The little figurines of the Magi from the story of the Adoration of the Biblical Magi, part of the ensemble of the Christmas crib-set in our house, were objects of marvel in my childhood. Their crowned figures clad in embroidered robes featured all the paraphernalia and pomp of royalty; their camels decked with ornamental bridles and saddles, the mysterious gifts in their hands, were all sprigs of fascination. Their images got better and fine-looking as we purchased better crib-sets over the years – from Austria, Italy and Bangkok.
The custom of exchanging gifts could date back to the three wise men. As some stories go: in olden times on Christmas Eve, children used to place shoes filled with oats outside their huts for the camels of the Magi which they hoped would be miraculously replaced with gifts.
The closest I got to the physical entity of the three wise men was when we stood before the gilded and decorated triple Sarcophagus traditionally believed to contain the relics of the Magi at the Shrine of the Three Holy Kings (Dreikönigsschrein) behind the high altar of Cologne Cathedral (Der Kölner Dom) in Germany.
Those relics were transferred from the church of St. Eustorgius in Milan on 23rd July 1164 by the powerful imperial chancellor, Rainald von Dassel (later Archbishop of Cologne) (3) having received them from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa).
Sometime after her arrival in the Holy Land around December 326/January 327 A.D., Helena (Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta/St. Helena – 248/9-329?), the mother of Emperor Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross, had discovered the bones of the Magi while searching for relics and building churches in honour of the life of Jesus. Chroniclers contend that she transferred the relics to Constantinople and later, Bishop Eustorgius, a native of Constantinople, was allowed by Emperor Constans (Flavius Iulius Constans Augustus – from 337 to 350) to transfer them to Milan in 343/44. The relics eventually became the most remarkable medieval cults to royalty.
The magi, a popular subject of tapestry, are patrons of travellers and pilgrims. In addition to the above three places, I have visited other centres where Christian reliquaries are kept, but a visit to one in Greece connected to the Magi remains yet to be realised. The Holy Monastery of Agiou Pavlou (Saint Paul’s) in Mount Athos houses, among many other relics, some cases containing gold, frankincense and myrrh, believed to be the gifts the Magi brought to baby Jesus. The authenticity of some of the relics could be doubtful but such vestiges play an important role as catalysts in connecting us to the history and legends of our illustrious past.
Christmas, celebrated everywhere, is particularly enjoyable at some places where it exudes a whole lot of charm to enjoy it the most. We have spent Christmas Day and New Year’s Day in different countries. Those special days made good memories for us – just like some days bearing special names are auspicious for many: Thanksgiving Day, Republic Day, Independence Day, May Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Valentine’s Day, Friendship Day, Day of Tiger, of Elephant, etc….. All this is very well.
Then again, woven into the fabric of the year are ill-fated days from history lesson: 9/11 (World Trade Center attack), 26/11 (Mumbai attack), 13/11 (Paris attack), ……. – named after disastrous events that have spawned sadness in us and bruised our pride, occasioned by malicious minds hell-bent on executing everything violent in excess. The world witnessed outpour of grief when innocent and helpless people lost their lives recently owing to brutal violence.
Even so, pain nourishes courage. The global goodwill resonated in displays of solidarity, judiciousness and calm wisdom when the Eiffel Tower, Paris; San Francisco City Hall; Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, Wembley Stadium in London; Brandenbourg Gate in Berlin; Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro; the CN Tower in Toronto; Burj Khalifa in Dubai; Tokyo Tower; Sydney Opera House; etc, showcased colours of blue, white and red. Vive la France!
Naturally, we bank on a sense of order and peace around us and we wish our lives to measure up to our hopes. There is nothing so precious and nothing more important than peace, though throughout history it has often been taken for granted until it’s too late. The past high degree of violence and unpredictability, offensive to our good spirits, had markedly dampened this holiday cheer. Recently there was news about tourists being selective on places to go for a safe and peaceful vacation.
As for us raring to go, despite the weather, we could opt for Christmas time in Italy even though we would be doing only a repeat of what we have done there many times over the years. There would be the traditional outdoor Christmas markets in Florence, Verona, Venice, Rome, …. On Christmas Eve, we could attend the Papal Mass by Papa Francesco at the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano and admire the huge Christmas tree and the life-sized Nativity scene in Piazza San Pietro; or at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo di Firenze); or at Basilica di San Marco, Venezia and watch the gondola arrive with Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) to distribute goodies, before sitting down for dinner and Bellini at Cipriani’s Harry’s Bar; or at Basilica di Sant’Antonio di Padova where we have wonderful friends amongst the Franciscan friars of the Basilica, etc.
Besides England, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, all wonderful places where we have enjoyed the local culture, Madrid (Spain) would garner our priority due to the wonderful ensemble of jolly good friends we have there. Alternatively, should we look at the East, we could always opt for Thailand, Singapore – or within good old India.
Now with the three wise women in my life, my wife and two daughters, here – it’s ample reason to take the pleasure of this season in the comfort of our sweet home. There won’t be snow here. But, never mind – the carollers and Santa Claus will come, maybe even Santa Mama. Peaceful Cochin and Fort Cochin will be decked with lights and stars – with the brightest most cheerful displays. Impersonations of the three wise men may appear in the yearly Carnival on the first of the New Year. Listen closely and we may hear Santa Claus cracking up with laughter in helplessness – at the seasonal hike in retail prices. I think there was never a sad Christmas time in Fort Cochin except maybe in 1524 when a period of mourning was observed owing to the death of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama at Fort Cochin on Christmas Eve.
Out of the many boxes resting in our storeroom for the past eleven months would spring beautiful stars, lights and ornaments to deck up our Christmas tree and adorn strategic places in our house. A beautiful floral table centrepiece will be made. My wife, very skilful with dazzling décor ideas, characteristic of her German origin, will once again ensure that all is done.
As for the creation of the Christmas crib, I believe I still have the inspiration from the creative astute shown by San Francesco di Assisi when he, with the permission of Pope Honorius III, recreated the Nativity scene (Presepio) for “the babe of Bethlehem” at the village of Greccio in Provincia di Rieti, Italy during the Christmas of 1223. Then again, the most inspiring of all this would be the message of Christmas – summarized in three magical words: “Kindness, Love, Peace”.
Not outdated or irrelevant, those sweet meditations of a mature faith appear relevant, especially in these times of adversity, to “survive with dignity”. Jo
- In art, so far as is known, the name of the three wise men appears for the first time in a relief sculpture on the lintel of the central portal above the main door at Chiesa di Sant’Andrea, the oldest surviving church in Pistoia, Tuscany. Created by Magister Gruamonte and his brother Adeodatus, it dates to 1166 – about 29 years prior to the birth of St. Anthony of Padova.
- The three wise men were said to have come from the kingdoms of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba – three of the many places proposed as their countries of origin.
- In “The War of Frederick I. against the Communes of Lombardy”, Rainald is named as Reinhardt.
- The DVD/Blu-ray of “Ben-Hur” (1959) referred in this article, is available with main dealers of movies. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
- This article is in memory of Michael and Gertrud Schüller, (late) parents of Carina, who would have loved to spend this Christmas here with us. May their souls rest in peace.
(© Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)