Christmas is upon us, and, even if you’re not a Christian, there’s a good chance you have a tree in your house with gifts scattered around it.

This is the modern American cultural and economic imperative. How did a birth in a Bethlehem stable turn into this?

Begin with the Magi. These were the proverbial Three Wise Men who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Christ. We all understand gold, but what is that other stuff?

Frankincense and myrrh are scented oils derived from tree sap, the first from the Boswellia sacra, the second from the Commiphora, both native to the Eastern Mediterranean region.

In their day, they were considered rare and valuable, hence their equation with gold in the minds of the Magi. You may be pleased or distressed to learn that today you can get a combo pack for 18 bucks at Walmart.

Time passed, and Christmas remained only one of the more important of the many religious days designated by the Catholic Church. Gifts were not required, or probably even considered. There were neither time nor money enough to pause for celebration.

Even as recently as Charles Dickens’ time, poor Bob Cratchit was slaving away on Christmas Day with nary a gift for Tiny Tim, and it took three visits from the supernatural to move Ebeneezer along into the holiday spirit.

Then came Santa Claus. Santa has been around a long time. His origins are attributed to Saint Nicholas of Myra, a fourth century Greek bishop renowned for giving to the poor.

Over the centuries, there have been many adaptations, such as the Netherlands’ Sinterklaus, and England’s less euphonious Father Christmas.

Gifts were sometimes exchanged on Saint Nicholas’ Day, which was Dec. 6. Martin Luther was apparently the first to suggest that Christ’s birthday might be celebrated with gifts, and Dec. 25 eventually won out.

Add to all this the residual pagan celebrations around the winter solstice featuring images of men with long white beards and Odin riding a reindeer, and you begin to see where the modern image came from.

That image was finalized almost entirely by two sources: Clement Moore’s 1823 poem, now known as “The Night Before Christmas,” in which Santa is described as “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,” and cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew him that way. Modest gifts had become the custom by this time.

Then came broad-circulation magazines, newspapers, eventually radio, television and Hollywood, and — Macy’s. Put that all together and you get a modern Christmas, or, to keep it politically correct, holiday season.

My favorite Christmas story is not about Charlie Brown or a kid who wants a Red Ryder BB gun or even a miracle on 34th Street. It is over a century old, by North Carolina native William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry. It is called “The Gift of the Magi.”

A very poor young couple are desperate to afford Christmas gifts for each other. While he is away at work on Christmas Eve, she cuts off her beautiful long hair and sells it to buy him a fob for his pocket watch, his most valued possession. Meanwhile, he has sold his watch to buy her a set of combs. They laugh about it, and live happily ever after, frozen in time and print.

There is a message in there somewhere, and it doesn’t have much to do with a big pile of presents under a tree.


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