|Gentile Da Fabriano, The Adoration of the Magi,|
Uffizi Gallery, Firenze
The ways in which we alter history, not just to suit our convenience, but for ideological reasons, or because we simply forget (or generally prefer to mis-remember). There will be many examples of this in this blog-book, but none more weighed down with history than this one.
In mediaeval times January 6th was, as it had been since the first Celtic settlers arrived in the 5th or 6th century CE, a commemoration and festival known as Late Yule, though what was being celebrated was actually Christmas Day.
Because this was the date of the Feast of the Adoration of the Magi.
Customs included hanging mistletoe in the Manor Hall, the performance of Mummers plays, and the singing of the Holly Riders - the proper name for carol singers. King John's Mince Pie was served in the evening, and the ashen faggots were burned before the Wassailers went out into the orchards for the apple-howling.
In Egypt Christmas Day is still January 6th, though they do now call it "Old Christmas", as do many people in the rural habitats of England.
The Magi were aristocratic priests of the Persian religion of Zoroaster, and there is much of Zoroaster in Christ's teachings, as there is an all of Pharisaic Judaism of that period – the self-identification with Ahura Mazda, "I am the Light" especially, but also the transformation of the older Jewish ha-Satan, a mere human adversary, into what would become the fallen angel Lucifer; though for now it was still simply a manifestation of the twin forces opposing the all-good Ahura Mazda: Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu. The Pharisees would later rename them as Yetser ha-Tov and Yetser ha-Ra: the positive and negative inclinations of Humankind, and in doing so would reconnect the otherwise dualistic Good versus Evil into the Monism of Human Responsibility.
Yet the gifts brought by the Magi also reflect a much older polytheism, the Tammuz-worship which the Medean Persians rejected in favour of Zoroastrianism. Myrrh, for example, or Myrrha, was the mother of Our Lord Adonis, fathered by the sky-and-sun god known by many names, and who was her father too. So ashamed was she of the incest that she asked to be transformed into a purer creature, and she became the myrrh tree. Adonis (Tammuz's title, it means Lord and became Adonai when the Hebrews absorbed the cult in order to destroy it) was then born of the tree, and its perfumed balm was used by Mary of Migdal to anoint him in his late incarnation as Yeshu of Genasseret – the act of king-making.
Why did the date change? Pagan Europe celebrated the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice, Sol Invictus, which takes place on December 21st - the Latin Bruma, from which the festival of Brumalia, means "shortest day". But the reformation of the calendar in 1347 moved everything four days, and a number of pagan festivals moved too, enabling Christianity to diminish and ultimately remove them. So the great conflagration of the Guy Faux, the straw effigy made from the last of the stubbled corn at the end of harvest, shifted from November 1st to 5th, and was then diminished further into the Gunpowder Plot (click here); while All Hallows (now Hallowe'en) was established to replace what had never until then been about anything in any way hallowed, but dealt, as Trick-a-Treat still does, with the mischievous sprites. So Sol Invictus-Brumalia shifted from December 21st to 25th, which was already Michelmas, and Christmas became explained as being precisely that act of annual rebirth, only now in the name of Jesus. How convenient, too, that the twelve days of the New Christmas end on the evening of January 5th.
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