Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, and Christians’ anticipation of his return. If Christmas is all about the nativity, then why do we give gifts? We have the Three Wise Men to thank for the tradition of gift giving at Christmastime. They traveled a great distance, like many of us do for the holidays today, to bring gifts to baby Jesus. Each year we remember their generosity and selflessness by giving to one another.
The Wise Men weren’t just some wise men who happened by — they had names and stories like anyone else! Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar all traveled together from “the East” carrying gifts. The East could have meant many places when the New Testament was penned, but the priestly men’s names are derived from Greek, as is the term “Magi” which they are often called. It is not known if they really were priests or kings, but they were learned men of a noble class with great knowledge of astrology. Their ability to follow stars supposedly guided them to Christ’s birthplace in the manger.
Gold would be a wonderful gift at a modern Christmas, but some children who hear the story of the Wise Men may wonder what Frankincense and Myrrh could be. Both are aromatic resins used in incense and perfume, and Myrrh can also be used for medicinal purposes. In a time before sanitation, deodorant, or antibiotics, substances for making fine perfumes or dressings for wounds were as good as gold! Some scholars interpret the frankincense and myrrh as purely medicinal gifts, while others assign spiritual symbolism to each. Either way the gifts are interpreted, the Magi’s gift giving was generous as well as thoughtful.
One more important tradition started by the Wise Men is the tradition of kneeling in worship. It is said that they fell before the Christ child, into a bowed, kneeling posture. This part of the story stuck with many Christian priests, and kneeling has remained an important part of worship since it was officially incorporated into services in the early days of the Church.
Wherever the Three Wise men really came from, whatever they intended by giving gold, frankincense and myrrh, they started a tradition that makes Christmas what it is today. While celebrating the nativity and sharing joy with family are the most important part of the holiday, gift giving is not just about getting, as the Three Wise Men demonstrated over two thousand years ago. Generous and thoughtful gifts celebrate friends and loved ones by honoring those first gifts that brought joy and comfort to baby Jesus and his family.