Christmas Eve 2013

The story of the three kings or wise men or astrologers who attended the birth at Bethlehem has been told down the centuries. It has inspired many artists and writers to recreate the scene in their own contexts. Two of them are Pieter Bruegel and Sara Teasdale.

BrueghelThe Adoration of the Magi is the name traditionally given to the portrayal of the Three Kings who found Jesus by following a star. The story is told in the Bible: “They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).

In 1567 the scene was painted by the Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder in Adoration of the Kings in the Snow. It depicts a peasant village in winter with soldiers searching the buildings. In the furore provoked by the armed men and the arrival of rich strangers, the birth of the baby goes almost unremarked.

The American lyrical poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), winner of the Columbia University Poetry Society prize, the forerunner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, was awarded the annual prize of the Poetry Society of America in 1918 for her volume Love Songs. The rather sentimental poem “Christmas Carol” (1911) adds chrysoprase (literally “green gold” or the translucent apple-green gemstone chalcedony) as well as the human touch of the baby Jesus falling asleep oblivious to the fuss going on all around him.

“The kings they came from out the south,
All dressed in ermine fine;
They bore Him gold and chrysoprase,
And gifts of precious wine.

The shepherds came from out the north,
Their coats were brown and old;
They brought Him little new-born lambs –
They had not any gold.

The wise men came from out the east,
And they were wrapped in white;
The star that led them all the way
Did glorify the night.

The angels came from heaven high,
And they were clad with wings;
And lo, they brought a joyful song
The host of heaven sings.

The kings they knocked upon the door,
The wise men entered in,
The shepherds followed after them
To hear the song begin.

The angels sang through all the night
Until the rising sun,
But little Jesus fell asleep
Before the song was done.”

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