Three Wise Men
What gets lost in all this craziness is remembering the true meaning of Christmas. Recently, my wife asked me if we should tell our 2-year-old son that Santa Claus is real so that he can enjoy that fun and wonderful tradition in the innocence of his childhood. I really had to stop and ask what Christmas means to me and my family, and what tradition do I pass on to our son. And while he’s not really talking yet, he’s already starting to get curious, and we feel the great responsibility of determining now what his Christmas tradition will be for years to come.
Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, "Merry Old Santa Claus", from the January 1, 1881, edition of Harper's Weekly.
Having been brought up in a Catholic household, we did not grow up with a Christmas tree in our home. Instead, Christmas always meant setting up an elaborate nativity scene in the living room. There would be a manger and figurines of the holy family, shepherds in the fields, lambs, donkeys, a little town of Bethlehem, angels, and the requisite star shining above it all. My siblings and I loved to add things to the rural scene, including whatever our latest toys were. All kinds of strange, little plastic animals, army figures, superheroes, and Smurfs would find their way into the little town of Bethlehem. It must have been a strange and amusing site for visitors to our home.
Key to this whole scene was the arrival of the three wise men. Also known as the three kings from the east, or the three magi, they represent the biblical figures who came from far off lands to bring gifts to the baby Jesus at his birth. Their gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh. In many parts of Latin America, the three kings are called “Los Tres Reyes Magos,” and they are depicted as travelling on camels from the Far East, bringing gifts to children on January 6, the Epiphany, which is the twelfth day of Christmas.
In contrast, my wife grew up in a less religious and more mainstream American Catholic household. There was always a Christmas tree and a Santa Claus, usually played by an overweight uncle dressed in red, who was convincing enough to keep her and her brother believing in old Saint Nick into their pre-teen years. Okay, maybe not fully believing, but at least fully enjoying.
So, now comes decision time. Should our son put out cookies and milk for Santa Claus and his reindeer on Christmas Eve as he anxiously awaits the arrival of his gifts? Or should he leave sweet bread and chocolate for the three wise kings and their hungry camels on January 5?
Well, we haven’t made a final decision yet, but this year he’s still too young to really understand the details of it all. We’ll have a Christmas tree and a small nativity scene as a happy compromise. But next year, we tell ourselves, we’ll figure it out for sure.
In the meantime, we are agreed that we want Christmas to mean more to our son than simply shopping and gifts. It should also symbolize a sense of family and cultural tradition, a tradition that we as parents have the profound privilege and responsibility to pass on to the next generation.
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