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Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

The Gift of the Magi

As we say a final good bye to the Christmas season, I thought I’d simply post a link to one of my favorite holiday stories, which seems appropriate for Three Kings Day:  The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry.

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This is a momentous day in numerous cultures past and present, and one that most of us have let fall by the wayside… by now, with our Christmas season that gets accelerated to somewhere before Halloween in order to sell more, we are, most of us so very done with the holidays.

And yet, tomorrow (Epiphany) is the last day of the Christmas season, which didn’t actually begin until the day before Christmas and tonight is Twelfth Night, the Eve of Epiphany and the kick off of the Mardi Gras season that preceeds Lent.

In Medieval times, as noted by Shakespeare, this was one of the ‘thin’ times, where the barrier between the mundane and magical was thin and merriment and misrule were the order of the day.

In Christian myth, Epiphany marks the date when the Three Wise Men visited the infant Jesus and marked his divinity.  In at least one reading I’ve come across, this is said to be significant, as it is the first time that Jesus is presented in his divine state to Gentiles.

The only time I’ve ever seen it observed as a holiday was when I lived in Germany – I rather liked the way they stretched out the gift-giving of the holiday season, kicking off with Saint Nicholas on his holy day in early December, adding a few more gifts on Christmas from the Kristkind (Baby Jesus) and ending with the Three Kings on Epiphany – children would stuff their shoes with hay or carrots for the camels, and get a last few trinkets from the Wise Men before the season shifted.

In Italy, another tradition says that an old woman named Befana was so caught up in her housekeeping routine that, when the Wise Men passed by and invited her to come see the divine child, she told them she had too many chores to do… and so now she rides her broomstick on Epiphany Eve, gifting gifts to children, hoping one of them might be the one she missed honoring when she had the chance.

As with so many religious observations in the Christian calendar, this one predates Christianity and was adopted by early Christians, modifying a popular holy observance to fit in with their new religion.

Epiphany – a Greek word for ‘manifestation’ was observed on this date in Ancient Greece, to mark the divinity of Demeter (as well as the rising up fron the Underground of her daughter Perspehone/Kore).  Most everyone knows the myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone.. Persephone gets kidnapped by Hades and her mother Demeter, goddess of all growing things on earth, in a fit of rage and despair tosses the world into its first Winter, allowing nothing to grow until her daughter is returned to her.  After a series of negotiations and bargaining with other gods and goddesses doing their part to try to get all this resolved, it is decided that Persephone will spend half a year with Hades as the Queen of the Dead, and half a year with her mother, at which point, spring and summer will come again… and so we have an explanation for the passing seasons.

Epiphany marks a lesser known portion of the story that occurs as Demeter is wandering the wintry earth in despair – she is so lost and raggedy in her grief that no one recognizes her, and the Queen of Eleusis takes the older woman to be a caretaker for her children.  Demeter pours out her maternal self on the Queen’s children, and decides she will make one of them immortal.  The Queen walks in on the attempted transformation, thinks she sees the new governness burning her son alive and stops the process in horror… at which point the epiphany – the manifestation – occurs, and they realise they have indeed been in the presence of the divine.

Later, after Persephone is restored to her, Demeter bids the people of Eleusis to commemorate their stories in the Mysteries, and Eleusis becomes a seat of worship for Demeter and Persephone, acting out Persephone’s descent into the Underworld and ascension back to life each year, and Demeter’s material anguish and quest to return her daughter to the land of the living.

The key to this story in terms of epiphany – and the visitation of the Magi in the Christian adaptation of Epiphany.. and even in the revelry of the celebration in the depths of icy winter is the recognition of the divine in the humble and ordinary.

Demeter looks like an old, unhappy, lonely woman – but had she been recognized for the goddess she was, the Queen’s son could have been elevated to the divine, himself.  His mother’s inability to see what was really happening stunted his own spiritual progression.

Jesus in his stable (yes I know… the Magi would have visited long long after he got out of that trough, but isn’t this how most people see it, based on nativity scenes and the scant number of days between Christmas and Epiphany?), as humble a birth as might be imagined, and yet these Wise Men – no fools they – saw in him the spark of divinity and knew him for the special soul he was, even though his culture and station were very different from their own.

And for centuries, as a last hurrah as the stores of winter food were depleted from feasting, one last blowout before lean times – one last time to blow horns and play jokes on one another and declare that this scullery maid or that knave might, for today be the Lord and Lady of Misrule, more special – more divine – than the Master and Mistress of the House.

The Epiphany, whatever the story or time or culture – the awareness, the aha – is that we are all divine, that all is a part of the divine if anything is, and that you shouldn’t trust surface appearances when you decide who or what is important.

These stories of divinity in disguise seem to be universal – examples abound in mythology, legend and sacred texts.  Seems to me, that is a good sign of something worth paying attention to.

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