Summary: These guys are the wrong people, from the wrong religion! What are they doing in the Christmas story? ...
The Xmas season is over! We’ve wished each other a Merry Xmas AND a Happy New Year, and now the festive season is PAST. The holidays (for most of us) are over. The time for singing carols and wishing peace and goodwill to all is finished. The presents have been handed out. The cards have all been delivered. The champagne has been consumed. The New Year resolutions have all been made. The decorations are all coming down. The trees have been dismantled. The metal ones have been repacked and the wooden ones have been repulped – all ready for next year. The decorations have come off the walls. The checkout chicks are no longer wearing the plush red hats as they process your groceries, and they are processing those groceries with a little less cheer. Santa is noticeably absent.
In the tradition of the church there are 12 days of Xmas, being the 12 days after Xmas, and today is the 12th day, which means that we have reached Epiphany – the celebration of the coming of the wise men. This means that we are actually at the climax of our Christmas season, but this is not how our department stores have understood it. There everything seems to be coming down even faster than it went up.
We noticed in our trip down the South Coast that there were still some metallic Santa’s overhanging the streets of one of the major South-Coast towns. It would seem that the threat of imminent bushfire had overtaken even the urgency of ridding the post-Xmas streets of Santas, but they did look out of place!
Of course it doesn’t have to be that way. Santa surely doesn’t have to disappear so quickly? It’s not a fixed part of the mythology, as far as I know, that as soon as he drops off the last present that he has to high tail it back to the North Pole without even resting the reindeer? Perhaps he could just hang around the stores for another week or so asking kids: ‘how did you like the presents? Did I get it right this year?’ That would certainly put an end to the sort of problem I heard about, where a kid walks up to Santa sitting on his throne and greets him with a good kick in the shins, saying ‘that’s for last year, you forgetful bastard’. No - catch the kid while he’s still full of Xmas spirit and in a good mood, and maybe we can all make a smoother transition into the next Xmas period.
But that’s not the way we do it. No. The presents have all been bought, the money has been made, the Santa’s have played their role, and there is nothing left for them to do. And so they vanish from sight.
The other group that normally vanishes from sight at about this time of year are the extras who fill the pews on Xmas day. ‘C&E’s’ we call them – Christmas & Easters. We didn’t have many this year! Perhaps it was the way I spoke to them after the last Xmas service, saying ‘See y’all next year’. I don’t know. But I do know that while we can’t predict who might turn up on Christmas day, we can be dead certain who will be here by the twelfth day of Xmas – just us, just the really serious Christians – just us, the wise men, and the baby Jesus – our baby Jesus!
Yes, the rest of Australia might pay Him some sort of well-intentioned homage at Xmas time, when the tinsels out and carols are playing and the booze is flowing freely. But we know who will be left at the little Nativity scene after all the singing dies down, after the angels go back into heaven, the shepherds return to their fields, and the little drummer boy goes back to his band – just Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and US ... and the three wise men of course!
Of course they’re not really part of the nativity scene as such, but we like to include them anyway. My little cardboard nativity scene I had as a child – that had the three wise men in it too, right alongside the shepherds and the animals, but strictly speaking they shouldn’t be there. The wise men came later – probably about a year later, by which time we assume the family had moved beyond the stable. The normal estimates are that the baby Jesus was between six and twenty months old when the wise men appeared on the scene – hence Herod’s killing of children two years old and under.
The other mistake we regularly make is to assume that they were kings. The ‘kings’ tradition goes back to the early church father Tertullian (who died 225). Old Testament passages said that kings would come and worship him (eg. Isaiah 49:7), hence the tradition. By the end of 6th century, the kings all had names: Melkon (later Melchior), Balthasar, and Gasper!