The magi and the Christmas gift givers
The Magi came and gave the baby Jesus gifts. How many Magi were there? Actually, the Bible does not say. It is thought to be three because the Bible mentions three types of gifts: gold, incense and myrrh. Eastern traditions favor twelve.
The wise men, the Magi, were astrologers and probably came from Persia or southern Arabia. They are believed to be linked with the priesthood of Zoroastrianism, who practiced astrology. The historian Herodotus (5th Century BC) attested to the astrological prowess of the priests of Persia.
Psalm 72 speaks of how the Gentiles will come to worship the Messiah: “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts, the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay Him homage, all nations shall serve Him” (72:10-11). Isaiah also prophesied the gifts: “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).
In 735 AD, St. Bede identified the magi in a work called the Excerpta et Collectanea: “The magi were the ones who gave gifts to the Lord. The first is said to have been Melchior, an old man with white hair and a long beard, who offered gold to the Lord as to a king. The second, Gaspar by name, young and beardless and ruddy complexioned, honored Him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. The third, black-skinned and heavily bearded, named Balthasar… by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die.” An excerpt from a Medieval saints calendar printed in Cologne reads: “Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel, the three wise men met at Sewa (Sebaste in Armenia) in 54 (AD) to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died: St. Melchior on 1st of January, aged 116; St. Balthasar on 6th of January, aged 112; and St. Gaspar on 11th of January, aged 109.” The Roman martyrology also lists these dates as the Magi’s feast days. The 12 days of Christmas ends on 6 January with the Feast of Epiphany also called “The Adoration of the Magi” or the day of the Three Kings.
The Bible clearly states that the visit of the Magi to Jesus was not on the night of his birth, unlike the shepherds’ visit to the manger, but occurred later when Jesus was staying in a house in Bethlehem.
The most famous gift giver is Father Christmas (Santa Claus or Sinterklaas), based on the character of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. But because the celebration of Christmas was not always appreciated, and because the origin of Christmas festivities are found in pagan festivals, there are many other gift givers. In communist Russia, where Christianity was outlawed, St. Nicholas became Grandfather Frost, dressed in blue instead of the traditional Christmas red. In early Europe, where old pagan traditions survived before they gradually took on the Christian meaning, festivities were held to ward of evil spirits. The Yule Buck, for instance, did not give presents but demanded them.
Italy had a female Santa, called La Befana. In parts of Russia, gifts were distributed by Babouschka, a grandmotherly figure. In Germany, the Christkind, an angelic messenger from Jesus, a beautiful fair haired girl with a shining crown of candles, delivered the gifts.
In some countries, the baby Jesus delivers the gifts, in others, the three wise men. But in most countries, the jolly round Father Christmas (Santa Claus) does the honors.
Matthew 2: 1-2: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi came from the east to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
The three gifts of the Magi had a prophetic meaning: gold, the gift for a king; incense, the gift for a priest; and myrrh, a burial ointment as a gift for one who would die.
The custom of the Magi following the star is still celebrated:
In Bavaria and Austria, beginning with New Years and through January 6, children dress as kings, and holding up a large star, go from door to door, carolling and singing a Three Kings song, for which they receive money or sweets.
The Festival of the Star is also held in Poland. Right after the Christmas Eve meal, the village priest, acts as the “Star Man” and tests the children’s knowledge of religion.
In Alaska, boys and girls carry a star shaped figure from house to house, singing carols.
In Hungary, a star-shaped pattern is carved in a half of an apple and is suppose to bring good luck.