In Quest Of Kings
Of all the childhood stories of the Christmas mythos, the Quest of the Three Kings from The East intrigued me most. Like most Catholic families we had our version of a crêche under our Christmas tree. One night, a week or so before Christmas, we would search for the “perfect tree” to decorate. Once secured the tree would be left outside to dry for a few days before our father carried it into the house and installed it in the steel base that would hold it securely in place for 12 to 14 days. As the eldest son in his family, our father had inherited some beautiful, delicate glass ornaments and the makings of the Nativity tableau. All of it was special and beautiful but the arranging the statues for the crêche beneath the tree was my favourite part of the Christmas ritual. I loved the tiny lambs and ducks and the aged circular mirror that stood in for a frozen pond with washing powder sprinkled around as snow. There was a venerable steer and a few other farm animals but the best items in the crêche scene were The Three Kings.
We Three Kings of Orient…
Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar were, for me, the heroes of the Christmas myth. They had everything going for them that an imaginative child would want and well, they were Kings after all! They came from different lands, finding their way by the stars and one star in particular, the “Christmas star”. Each King rode an animal identified with his origins: a horse, an elephant and a camel. I especially loved the camel, a best I never seen in real life. I’d seen my first elephants at a circus and was shocked to discover that they didn’t come equipped with their own lavatory! Attendants with hoses soon washed the evidence away but my high opinion of elephants was somewhat tarnished for a while.
To my childhood imagination The Three Kings were far more interesting than Mary, Joseph or “Jesus” whose hagiographies were all too familiar from the gospels that we studied at school. The Kings, however, were a true mystery. They are only mentioned in relation to the royal and prophetic gifts they bore: gold, frankincense, and myrrh as “tribute” to the baby “King of Israel”. Frankincense and Myrrh were highly prized and potent aromatics eventually used in Catholic churches at high masses, during Lenten services, and for funeral masses. The scent of the smoldering incense lingered for an hour or more filling the church with a sense of antiquity and mystery, the mystery of The Three Kings. It also reminded me that “other Catholics” actually believed the Feast Day of the Three Kings known as Epiphany was the true date of birth of “Jesus”.
6 January 2015
Many of the earliest Christian sects in the Middle East and Egypt placed the date of birth of “Jesus” not on 25 December but on 6 January. The Winter Solstice period of the 21st to 23rd of December marked the astronomical nadir of the year. The “shortest” day of the year is the turning point when the angle of the sun’s light and heat reaches the end of its decline. By the 25th of December the subtle shift to longer days just begins to become noticeable and ancient cultures around the Middle East associated that approximate date with the re-birth of those gods who had descended to the underworld and now began their return to the light, a journey that culminates at Oestre or Easter when the earth itself is re-born with all forms of life returning from the dark of Winter into the light of Spring. But what is special about the 6th of January? Why do the oldest Christian sects celebrate their Christmas on this date?
In the pre-Christian traditions of the ancient world, the gradual return of the sun for longer periods is celebrated on 25 December the traditional date of the birth of “Mithra” and carries on for 12 days until 6 January the date when the gods of the underworld surrender their grip on captive gods and goddesses for their coming re-birth in Spring.
For Eastern Rite Catholics, Twelfth Night is the high point of their Nativity celebrations. In the pre-Julian calendar it marked the birthdate of “Jesus” and the arrival of the Three Kings to witness it. In some ways it makes more sense to me to attribute the birth of “Jesus” to the 6th of January. In those churches that celebrate the Epiphany as the birthdate, the Kings arrive to witness the birth, making them in effect “godfathers” of the newborn. This version of the myth appealed to me and still does. There is a symmetry about it that fits the mythopoeic sensibility.
By contrast, the 12 Days in the Western tradition constitute the winding-down of the period of celebration so there is something a bit sad about the Epiphany in that respect. In my childhood, the vast majority of Catholic families left their trees up until the 5th or 6th of January. By then, the trees were too dry and needles started to fall off. Epiphany marked the reversal of the joyous ritual of erecting the tree and arranging the crêche. It felt rather like a funeral for those who had witnessed the “Nativity” and in particular for The Three Kings who are never heard from again in the official canon of the liturgical year. It is that sudden and complete disappearance from the myth that bothers me. How often in history do we have a story like this where Three KINGS set off on a Quest to welcome a new life into the world? There are many “voyager” myths, to be sure, and even reports in various “chronicles” of Kings being present at the birth of heirs but that is to be expected. The Epiphany marks the arrival of three men who have no family connection to the newborn and, even more intriguing, at least two of the three Kings come from countries – or regions – that made war upon and enslaved the people of the land of Judah into which the baby is now born. Who were these Kings, really? That is the question that tantalises my love of mystery and draws me to follow the threads that lead beyond “Judah” and back in time to the lands of Mithra, Krishna, and Buddha to search for possible answers in more ancient gods and goddesses that inhabit our collective unconscious.
© Delia O’ Riordan 2014