Archive for the ‘Twelfth Night’ Tag

The Greatest Gift: The Story of the Other Wise Man   3 comments

Although Twelfth Night is no longer as important as it once was in Britain and elsewhere, Epiphany is still marked in the calendar as the day after Christmas when we think about the visit of the three travellers, the ‘wise men’ who made, as T S Eliot wrote in his poem ‘The Journey of the Magi‘, ‘such a long journey at the worst time of the year’.

Henry van Dyke (1852-1933), a modernist who pu...

Henry van Dyke (1852-1933), a modernist who pushed for revisions to the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1900-1910. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another Story which is not so well-known tells us that, as is quite possible, there were more than three travellers, and that a fourth set out but failed to follow the star to reach Bethlehem in time to greet the infant Jesus. The original story, by the Nineteenth-century American writer Henry Van Dyke, is quite long, so, in my lessons this week, I start with the re-telling of it by Susan Summers, a Worcestershire teacher, in her recently published and beautifully illustrated book, The Greatest Gift (Bristol: Barefoot Books, 1997: www.barefoot-books.com) and then summarise the rest of the story in a form which, I hope, is accessible to second language learners at pre-intermediate level and above (it has been tested with adults and adolescents already). Whether or not you’re a teacher or formal learner, I hope you will enjoy the story and find it useful as well as inspiring…

Cover of "The Story of the Other Wise Man...

Cover of The Story of the Other Wise Man

Long ago in the city of Ecbatana, high among the mountains of Persia (in what today we call Iran), there lived a man named Artaban. From a tower at the end of his beautiful garden Artaban used to study the secrets of nature, especially the secrets of the night sky…One night, he and three of his friends, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, noticed a new star rising, which shone more brightly than any they had ever seen. They knew that this star signified the birth of a great teacher and they agreed to follow the star and ‘pay homage’ (or ‘worship’) to the child.

 

 

 

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Artaban made preparations for a long journey, taking with him a ruby, a sapphire and a pearl to give to the ‘King of Kings’. He was to meet his companions far to the East by the Temple of the Seven Spheres in Babylon. But on the way, he stopped to help a dying man and so arrived late at the temple. His friends had already departed, and desperate to see the new-born king, Artaban had to set off across the desert alone. So he returned to Babylon, where he sold his glittering sapphire and his beloved (but very tired) horse Vasda in exchange for a ‘caravan’ of camels. Then he set out across the desert.

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Like his three friends, Artaban had read the prophecies and studied the stars, so he knew that this ‘Son of David’ would be born in Bethlehem in Judea. As he came near to the town, he had to crouch down in the ditch by the Roman road as a troop of soldiers came galloping along with swords drawn. He followed them into a nearby village, and was startled to hear the cries of young children and their parents, all in great pain and distress. The soldiers were everywhere, breaking down doors and bringing from the houses the very young babies and infants, one and two years old.

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As Artaban sheltered in a doorway and could hear the sound of crying from inside the house. He pushed his way past the door and saw the frightened mother screening something with her body. She had hidden her child from the soldiers and was afraid they might return. Artaban comforted her and when later a soldier did look in, Artaban stood in front of the mother with his arms raised. Not wishing to risk his own life in a struggle with a man, the soldier left and soon they could hear the sound of retreating troops. The mother had saved her boy but was still very upset by the damage done to her poor home by the soldiers’ search for him. Again, Artaban comforted her, this time by giving her the ruby which was to have been part of his gift for the Christ-child of Bethlehem. With this she had the money to build a new home and a new life for her son.

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When Artaban reached Bethlehem, he found his way to Joseph‘s family home, but was told that Joseph, Mary and the baby had left shortly after his friends had visited, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The family was on their way to Gaza and the Via Maris, the Great ‘Sea Road’ to Egypt. Joseph had been warned in a dream of the danger from Herod, as had his friends, who had also set off in the opposite direction from Jerusalem, intending to return to Babylon via the Great Road to the North, via Damascus and Nineveh, to avoid Herod and his soldiers. Although Jesus’ refugee family had left behind the gifts of Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, fearing what might happen if they were caught carrying them in Gaza, Artaban decided he would take the pearl with him in the hope that it may be of some use to them on their return to Galilee, as Joseph’s family told him they did not intend to return to Bethlehem until Herod was dead, though they wouldn’t tell him exactly where the family would be living. In any case, the pearl was small enough to be carefully hidden in the babe’s ‘swaddling clothes’. So, Artaban thanked Joseph’s family, hoping to catch up with the refugees on the road south to Egypt and then turn northwards after his friends. However, he could not find the family in Gaza, and though he followed the road all the way to the Nile, there was no sign of them anywhere in Egypt.

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Artaban returned to Palestine and searched for the boy king everywhere during the next thirty years, and always hoped to meet him one day and present him with the pearl. Towards the end of his search in Galilee, he began to hear many stories of Jesus’ actions and sayings, but somehow never caught up with him. Then, after thirty-three years had passed, he heard that Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for Passover, with his disciples. He hurried to catch up with the crowds from Galilee, but when he finally arrived in Jerusalem the feast was already happening and there were crowds everywhere. He heard that Jesus had been tried and condemned to death. Could he get to see him just once, perhaps with the aid of the precious pearl?

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On the Friday of Passover, just before the Jewish Sabbath, he pushed his way through the crowds towards the street where the condemned criminals carried their crosses up to a hill shaped like a skull, ‘Calvary’. Artaban passed through a crowded square where he found a young child being sold as a slave to pay for his family’s debts. He stood by a heartbroken woman whose boy was just then being offered for sale. As the bidding went on, the woman became more and more distressed. Just as the sale was being made, Artaban stepped forward and gave the mother the pearl with which to buy back her son. Now he had no gift left for Jesus.

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When he reached the Way of the Cross, Jesus was just passing. There was a great crowd and many people were leaning out of windows to get a better view of this ‘King of the Jews’ passing by in the narrow street below. From a balcony above Artaban saw a tile fall down, straight towards the head of the young boy he had just saved from slavery. He pushed the boy aside, and the tile hit his head instead. As he fell, dying, Jesus turned to him at that moment and, with a look which told Artaban that his story of sacrifice was known, said ‘as you have given to others, so you have given to me.

‘Wes Hal!’ The final four days of Christmas to ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘Epiphany’ (Jan 5th/6th)   6 comments

Journey of the Magi

Journey of the Magi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the ‘Octave of Christmas‘ now over and having celebrated Jesus ‘the light of the gentiles’, non-Jews, we look forward to the ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’ to those people, as represented in the journey and visit of the ‘Magi’, or ‘wise men’. Of course, it has become traditional and convenient to place them in the crib scene on Christmas Eve, three of them, but they didn’t arrive until some time after the visit of shepherds arrived at the manger and probably visited Jesus at Joseph’s family home in Bethlehem. We don’t know how many there were of them, only that they presented three types of gift. Only Luke mentions the ‘manger’, simply a feeding trough for animals, and the story of the magi’s visit to ‘a house’ is found only in Matthew’s gospel, along with the escape into Egypt along the Via Maris, the Sea Road, to the south of Gaza, and Herod’s killing of the children of Bethlehem.

The Magi Journeying

The Magi Journeying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, in the final days of Christmas we can think about the journey of the magi, their visit to Herod, and their search for the child. Much has been written about this, in both words and music, perhaps the most well-read passage being from

T S Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi‘:

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey.

In my family, there are three brothers, and when my Baptist Minister father was still alive, we would gather round the piano, each singing a solo verse of ‘We Three Kings‘ as Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, each explaining the purposes of the gifts. There’s a story that when the three wise men first met on their journey to Palestine, the first was convinced that the child was to be a great King and that it was fitting to take a gift of gold. The second was equally sure that the child they were going to greet was to be a great High Priest, to be worshipped over all the world and for him the symbol of praise, incense, would be appropriate. The third wise man said that they were both wrong and that the child would grow up to be the one who would, by sacrifice of his own life, save the world. For such a person, myrrh was correct.

They journeyed together. As they neared the home of the infant Jesus they heard Mary singing The Magnificat. They listened to the words, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’. ‘Ah,’ said the first wise man, ‘I was right. He will be a great Lord, a King.’ They paused as Mary continued her song with ‘My spirit doth rejoice in God‘. ‘There you are,’ said the second,  ‘He is to be a great High Priest, a God.’ Then Mary added, ‘My Saviour’, and the third wise man congratulated himself on his prophecy that Jesus would be both sacrifice and saviour. Of course, they were all correct in their prophesies and all three gifts were significant and appropriate to celebrate the birth of the whole world’s King, High Priest and Saviour.

Malvolio and the Countess

Malvolio and the Countess (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Twelfth Night, the night before Epiphany, is not marked in Britain with the ceremonies accorded to it over a century ago. Some Churches still have their ‘Christingle’ services or ‘Crib’ services at this time, placing the three wise men, together with pages, or servants, in their positions in the stable, to complete the Christmas scene. All that remains in most homes on Twelfth Night in Britain is to take down the Christmas decorations, including the tree. However, four hundred years ago, the Night was important enough for Shakespeare to write a play about it, since parties were held in almost every household. As evening closed in, pastry cooks’ windows gleamed and good trade was had in the sale of ‘Twelfth Cakes’, large and small, decorated with stars, castles, dragons, kings, palaces and churches in white icing with varied colours. At each party a king or queen had to be discovered. This was a kind of lottery, for in each cake was hidden a pea or a bean. The child who found the bean became king, and the one finding the pea became queen. If the bean was first found by a girl, or vice versa, the finders had to choose a partner. Sometimes the peas and beans were replaced by silver coins. At some parties a complete court was appointed, and due honours paid to its various members.

In apple-producing areas of the West Country, until the late nineteenth century, men and women went out after dark, the men armed with shot guns and one of them carrying a bucket of cider which was then set down among the trees. Each man took a cup of cider and after drinking some, poured the remainder over the roots of the tree. He then placed a piece of Twelfth Cake in the fork of the tree ‘for the robin’. The company then called out, ‘Wes hal’ (‘wassail’) meaning ‘good health’. The men then raised their guns and shot into the air. The ceremony was intended to secure a good crop of apples in the coming year, and the final days of Christmas in these areas were known as ‘wassailing’ days, with each county developing its own song, the most famous of which are the Gower (south Wales), Somerset and Gloucestershire ‘wassails’. Naturally, there’s often a lot of overlap between them in both words and music:

Wassail

Wassail (Photo credit: Celtic Myth Podshow)

Wassail, and wassail, all over the town!

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown;

Our cup it is made of the good ashen tree,

And so is our malt of the best barley:

No harm boys, no harm; no harm, boys, no harm;

And a drop or two of cider will do us no harm.

‘We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear,

So that we may have cider when we come next year;

And where we have one barrel we hope you have ten,

So that we may have cider we come again:

For it’s your wassail, and it’s our wassail!

And its joy be to you and a jolly wassail!

Perhaps the carol, ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ was an attempt to transform these ancient customs into Christian symbols. Certainly, following Twelfth Night, we look forward to the childhood of Jesus, about which we know very little. The only story the gospel-writers give us is Luke’s story about his second visit to the temple in Jerusalem at twelve years of age, in which we see him as a lively lad noted for the way he went on asking questions. Luke also tells us twice that he grew strong in body and wisdom, gaining favour with both God and men. Rather like the apple trees, having God’s blessings upon him. So, may…

7 pints of brown ale, 1 bottle of dry sherry, ...

7 pints of brown ale, 1 bottle of dry sherry, cinnamon stick, ground ginger, ground nutmeg, lemon slices (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘God bless the master of this house,

Likewise the mistress too;

And all the little children,

That round the table go:

Love and Joy come to you,

And to you your wassail too,

And God bless you and send you

A happy New Year!

‘And all your kin and kinsfolk,

That dwell both far and near;

I wish you a Merry Christmas,

And a happy New Year:

Love and Joy….!

From Ritson’s Ancient Songs and Ballads, 1829, copied from a seventeenth century manuscript.

Fifth Day of Christmas: Barbecue time! 29th December.   1 comment

When anyone asks me, ‘did you have a good Christmas?’ around this time, I usually answer in the present continuous. As Shakespeare knew well, there are twelve days to the festival, though these days the New Year celebration comes in the middle of these. Apparently, it was the French who ruined our traditional Christmas by, in 1564, decreeing that the New Year began on 1st January, not 1st April, as it had done up to then. We’re not exactly sure when the English followed suit, but the tradition of giving New Year cards and gifts and cards continued, for a joke, on what then became ‘April Fools’ Day‘. Jokes have to be made by mid-day on the day because that was originally when everybody had to get back to work after the first twelve hours of the New Year. Of course, most ‘gifts’ would have been given shortly after mid-night and people would have been given the twelve hours to sleep off the excesses of the night before.

When the Puritan Parliament prohibited Christmas festivities in the early 1640s, it was following the example set by the Scottish Presbyterians, since it needed their support in their increasingly common cause against the King and his revision of Cranmer’s Prayer Book, together with the imposition of an Episcopalian system on the Scots. Of course, at this time Scotland and England had separate parliaments, though ruled over by the same monarch. Christmas was viewed as a ‘Papist’ festival, lasting over twelve days of feasting, when little work got done. It was obvious to all that many of these festivities were pagan in origin and had no more to do with Christ’s birth than May Day had to do with Mary. While such festivities were restored in the “Merrie England” of Charles II, in Scotland they continued to be frowned upon until the 1950s, when the power of the Kirk finally began to wane, and the two-day Christmas holiday was officially reinstated. This explains why, to this day, the secular festival of “Hogmanay” or New Year remains the more important festival in Scotland, marked there by a two-day public holiday.

‘Holy Days’ are now reverting to being ‘holidays’ of course, as the now ubiquitous American English greeting ‘Happy holidays’ indicates, though, as my Vicar once reminded me, neither should Christians greet with ‘Happy Christmas’ until it actually comes, on the 25th, unless they are going away from their own parish. When St Augustine came to Canterbury, he realised the impracticability of eliminating former pagan customs in England. He didn’t object to people slaughtering an ox for the feast at a Christian celebration as they had done at their former rituals. This was called a ‘barbecue’, a word which describes the framework or table on which the ox is roasted, possibly an altar. It’s amusing to think that every time British or Australian people wheel out the ‘barbie’, they are in fact partaking in an ancient, pagan ritual, worshiping at the altar, no doubt with the ‘high-priest’ or ‘arch-druid’ in charge! A case of life imitating religion! Of course, only Aussies are able to do this ‘al fresco’ at Christmas, though our more hardy perennial ancestors would have seen it as being as much a winter custom as a fair-weather one, if not more so, gathering round the huge fire for warmth.

The Examination and Trial of Father Christmas,...

The Examination and Trial of Father Christmas, (1686), published shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, these customs were not always welcomed by some clerics and certainly received a set-back under the strict Presbyterian governments of the mid-seventeenth century in England and Scotland. The easy return of ‘Merrie England’ under Charles II suggests that this has been exaggerated in its long-term effects, however. The motivation behind the discouragement of holidays was not solely religious, often reflecting a dissatisfaction with industrial or agricultural output, like Henry Ford‘s more recent support for Prohibition in the USA. In twelfth century Europe, including England, peasants’ holidays amounted to eight weeks in the year, with major festivals occupying ‘the octave’, eight days. Christmas, of course, headed the list, with its twelve days, with fun and games extending until Twelfth Night, with no New Year to get in the way then. While Church attendance was duly observed throughout, much of the celebration continued to owe far more to pre-Christian customs, which were not always very reverent.

Many festivals were lost with the new working patterns required by industrialisation from the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, when Prince Albert and Charles Dickens effectively re-invented Christmas, importing German customs and reviving other more traditionally English ones. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is often misread, with Scrooge appearing as an isolated miser, whereas the author actually meant it as an attack on the widespread support the Malthusian Poor Law System which all but did away with the system of outdoor relief for the ‘deserving poor’ which had existed since Elizabethan times. Just as a culture of ‘austerity’ has grown up in recent years, the 1830s had seen much popular support among the Victorian middle classes for the need to ‘reduce the surplus population’. Dickens was reminding these better-off Anglicans and Nonconformists of an older form of puritanism, which was most recently epitomised in the maxim of the great Methodist preacher John Wesley –  earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can. Dickens was not against the values of diligence and thrift, but he urged people not to forget the ‘greatest’ value, ‘love’ of fellow humans, or caritas in Latin, giving us the word charity, or philanthropy and philadelphia from the Greek. A holiday visit to the theatre to see a clever adaptation of the great story reminded me of these original themes, its title, in Hungarian, Isten Pénze, reminding audiences that, in the end, all the wealth that any of us have belongs to God.

In the twentieth century, with automation and computerisation, we experienced a return to a shorter working week, broken up by longer holidays, taken at different times, according to personal preferences and family priorities, rather than being dictated by the Church, Government, or corporate industrialists. However, we still feel the need for common customs, whether Christian or pagan in origin, perhaps even more so in a fast-changing world.

[Edinburgh from the castle, Scotland] (LOC)

[Edinburgh from the castle, Scotland] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Festivals need not be spectacular events, but events which bind us together with significant activities. There is nothing so sad as a child on holiday saying, ‘I’m bored…I have nothing to do!’ Some festivals in Britain have been brought into our lives by followers of other faiths, enabling mutual understanding and integration in schools and society. All religions celebrate with festivals of light, their longing for a future world which is pure, peaceful and commonly good.

New Year and Christmas have competed for popularity since the calendar has been in its present form and the two festivals have never been equally celebrated, for instance, in England, Wales and Scotland. As already noted, in England and Wales, Christmas has been the major festival, although as one travels north and west the emphasis on New Year ‘wassails’ and ‘waits’ increases, whereas in Scotland, certainly since the Calvinist Reformation, New Year, or ‘Hogmanay’ is kept with greater vigour and excitement.

Here in Hungary, everyone is getting ready for ‘Szilveszter Nap’ (St Silvester’s Day) as it is known. So, whether continuing to celebrate Christmas, or welcoming the New Year, we’re all looking forward, or trying to!

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