As we dismantle the Christmas tree, stow the decorations, and sweep up the New Year’s confetti, we breathe a collective sigh of relief that the holiday season is finally over. Or is it?
In fact, the Christmas season is still going strong as the new year begins. The twelve days of Christmas actually mark the time it took the Magi of the Nativity story to reach the manger in Bethlehem following the birth of Jesus. So for many Christians and history enthusiasts, the Christmas season really begins on December 25th and concludes on January 6th. But why are these twelve days so special? What was it like for those Magi over two millennia ago? And is there more to this story than a partridge in a pear tree?
There’s nothing more serene than the image of the Nativity we instantly conjure up in our imaginations: Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus, surrounded by solemn Magi, sheepish shepherds, and laconic, cud-chewing animals. While this bucolic sight probably was the very essence of peace on earth, the reality was that just outside this sweet setting was a world in turmoil, and the manger was the eye of a storm about to set the world spinning in a whole new direction.
The world’s calendar was reset to 0 AD just over 2,000 years ago, the estimated date of the birth of Christ (although historians can now put the date anywhere from 6 BC to 100 AD). Get used to this lack of hard data and precision: there are a great deal of conflicting historical data on the whos, whens and wheres of the Nativity. The accounts of Josephus, a first-century AD chronicler, provide the best source of information, but even those word-of-mouth accounts were 100 years old when he collected them.
Over time, we’ve mythologized the story of the Magi to fill in the blanks and breathe life into these mystical travelers . . .
Nonetheless, we do know that back then Rome was the preeminent power in the world, and its reach extended from rainy Britannia to parched Judaea and beyond. This was an era of conflict: war — both external and civil — filled and drained the Roman treasuries; the oratory of Cicero sounded and faded in the Senate; Cleopatra committed suicide and Rome annexed Egypt; Vesuvius was building up to drown Pompeii in lava within 75 years; and the mighty emperor Caesar Augustus was constructing a sprawling empire. Tumultuous times indeed.
Judaea, a region that makes up present day Israel and Palestine, was a territory held by the Romans. They used their military might to squeeze Judaea for riches to send back to Rome’s coffers. To manage things and keep the resources flowing, Augustus put a puppet king — a non-Judaean governor named Herod the Great — on the throne to manage in Rome’s stead.
Herod was, in today’s lexicon, a bad dude: a madman, paranoid and ruthless, who would murder anyone he considered a threat (including his own son and wife). Incidentally, this Herod the Great was one of a number of men named Herod to rule Judaea, and it’s safe to say that none of them would win the Nobel Peace Prize today.
However, Herod was also considered a brilliant architect and politician who knew how to curry the favor of Rome and thus preserve his throne; it didn’t hurt that he was backed by the military might of the Roman army. Herod built many cities, roads, and palaces, but forced the Judaeans he ruled over to do the labor. It was a less than happy relationship, and there was a simmering undercurrent of civil unrest that would come to a boil when Jesus grew up.
So to set the stage: a Roman army occupied the territory of Judaea, an unstable and murderous despot ruled this land, money was tight, and its people were oppressed.
Enter three wise men, on a difficult journey at best.
Was the Magi’s journey a leisurely, 12-day camel ride across the desert — simply three men following a beautiful star? Certainly, the greeting cards and Nativity plays would have us think so. Yet given the circumstances of Judaea at the time, and the sparse facts we can dig up regarding the historical Nativity, it’s possible to envision that the Magi rode into a maelstrom.
We have precious few details to hang our hats on regarding these “wise men.” The Gospels don’t tell us how many Magi there were, what their names were, where they came from, their occupations, or where they went after Bethlehem. Over time, we’ve mythologized the story of the Magi to fill in the blanks and breathe life into these mystical travelers, and even today new documents are being unearthed to add to the patchwork canon of the Magi’s mystery. It’s a hazy mix of fact, fiction, and guesswork, but for the sake of argument, let’s go with the commonly accepted scenario of three astrologers from the East.
Considering those dangerous times, it’s safe to question the ease of the Magi’s journey. Even today, three strangers crossing the desert would be a difficult enterprise, risking life and limb in a harsh, life-robbing environment. Add in Roman army patrols, unfriendly neighboring territories, and supply issues, and the Magi’s trip must have been arduous.
To appreciate how disruptive the Magi’s appearance in Judaea must have been, consider this: if three strangers from a distant land strode into Washington D.C. today and announced that they’d seen a sign in the sky that a new leader was born to rule the land, what would the FBI do? Probably bring them in for questioning.
And that’s just what the Gospel of Matthew tells us Herod did. When word got to him that the Magi were making disturbing statements that questioned the authority in Judaea, Herod called them in and grilled them on what they knew. But it appears the Magi were no fools and didn’t fall for Herod’s “good cop” routine: they kept their mouths shut about the details of their journey.
Good thing, too, because the Magi managed to leave Herod’s palace with their heads still attached to their necks and made their way to Bethlehem for their date with destiny. However, while the joyous meeting was taking place inside the manger, Herod was initiating a rampage. Matthew’s Gospel informs us that Herod had instructed the Magi to return with news of the newborn king, but they’d been warned not to do so by an angel — it seems heaven was wise to Herod.
Are the 12 days of Christmas really a season of joy — or a remembrance of the difficult quest of the Magi?
Yet Herod’s paranoia for his throne wouldn’t settle for anything less than a clean slate, so he ordered what is now known as the Massacre of the Innocents. Foiled by the Magi’s failure to provide intel, Herod ordered his soldiers to murder every boy two years of age and younger in the town of Bethlehem. A horror of this magnitude brings to mind modern-day massacres in Germany, Bosnia, and Rwanda, and one can only shudder to think of toddlers and infants put to death at the point of the sword. To Herod’s twisted mind, however, this was the only way to safeguard his position of power.
The Massacre of the Innocents, although gruesome, was ultimately a failure. While Josephus is silent on this particular event, the Bible tells us that Joseph and Mary took the baby Jesus to Egypt prior to the massacre, and thus set up the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy that God would call his son out the land of Pharaoh. Meanwhile, the Magi returned to their home by a different route and avoided capture by Herod. The net result, to quote T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi,” was “satisfactory.”
No, Christmas isn’t over yet.
In the end, we must ask ourselves: was the Nativity really a picturesque scene of birth and peace — or the eye in a hurricane of brutal political, military, and economic conflict? Are the 12 days of Christmas really a season of joy — or a remembrance of the difficult quest of the Magi? It’s food for thought as the Christmas season continues its march to Bethlehem on January 6th and the Epiphany.
So please take down the tree, wrap your ornaments in bubble wrap, toss the mistletoe, and place your wreaths in plastic storage bins. But leave your Nativity set up if you can, or pause for a moment when you pass one on your travels; the Magi’s journey isn’t over yet, and January 6th is only a few days away.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.