For years, I blamed the wise men. I thought they were the ones responsible for this holiday gift giving racket where shopping becomes the reason for the season. I scoffed at the precedent the three set. Apparently, it wasn’t good enough to travel “o’er field and fountain” to visit the baby Jesus. No, they just had to bring presents, hauling them miles over desert terrain to follow yonder star.
To make matters worse, these guys didn’t bring the usual banal gifts we’ve all given and received a million times over, like scented candles. Although, come to think of it, the inhabitants of that manger might have appreciated the scent of lavender wafting over the stable, or at least some of that ubiquitous shell-shaped guest soap. Somebody has to use that stuff. I’ve been to many a friend’s house and have never seen guest soap in its natural habitat, the powder room. It has to be the biggest gift-con-job ever: “Here, buy this soap that no one uses!”
I thought the wise men ruined it for us all. Not only by giving gold, the priciest gift of all, but by acting all magi-like and topping it off with frankincense and myrrh. Surely, it makes these guys the best guests ever. Maybe they got to use the special soap!
I’m guessing that while on the road to Bethlehem, the three got wind that the baby was born in a barn, because both frankincense and myrrh have aromatic applications. But that only makes my point. Dudes, be like the rest of us, bring a candle!
Turns out that Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar are blameless, which is a good thing. With those names, they probably got picked on enough at school. No, the Magi do not represent the origin of gift giving, because it’s a relic of pagan custom. In ancient Rome, around the time of winter solstice, the festival of Saturnalia was celebrated with feasting, merrymaking, and yes, ding-ding-ding: gift giving! There was also public sacrifice, so we should be thankful it was the tradition of presents that stuck.
I do note, though, there is no need to replicate the Saturnalia custom of naming someone the “Lord of Misrule,” the guy who’d make mischief, insult guests, and chase women, seeing how politics has that covered.
Thus, those darn toga-wearing Romans gave presents long before the wise men. However, their offerings were not so schmancy as gold. Instead, these revelers gave figurines, writing tablets, and, I cannot believe it, candles! They, too, must not have known what to give, and in resignation went to their local candle shop, probably run by a bunch of retired gladiators. I suspect it went by the name of A Roma Candle.
Perhaps the problem is the candle. Sure, they might have been a great gift in 217 BC when the only way to write on your brand new tablet was with the flicker of a wick. But now, these wax cylinders are bordering on obnoxious with scents like saltwater-sea-musk and bacon cupcake. Add to that, the ludicrous labeling exemplified by the “angel wings” candle, described as “joyfully spun sugar and vanilla.” Really? I was sure an angel would smell like chocolate.
I no longer point a finger at the Magi in regard to gift giving, which I only rail against because this shopping hoopla is a bully to the prospects of peace, goodwill, and the real gift - time to be together. So, instead, I’ll focus on what the wise men did first. They traveled far to see a baby. Sounds like something many of us do on holidays, something that, in many ways, is still a miracle.
In Musing has won awards from the Vermont Press Association and the New England Newspaper & Press Association. Vasta Folley is an award-winning playwright. To see more of her work, visit carolevf.com.