Fred Neidner: Is anticipation tonight for Christmas — or the NBA?
December 23, 2011 6:41PM
Updated: January 25, 2012 8:03AM
Of all special days on our calendars, this one may hold the greatest measure of anticipation. Children will scarcely sleep tonight. Even snug in their beds, few visions of sugar-plums will dance in their heads. Adults will stay up late, stealthily making preparations.
For what do we hold our breath? No, not Santa Claus, nor his awkward helpers. Flying reindeer? Yawn. Angel choirs lighting up the night? Puh-leeze! All these have become trivial. Tomorrow is opening day of the National Basketball Association season.
You await the coming of the King? It’s LeBron, friends. Look no further.
Billionaire owners and millionaire players have called off their poor-mouthing, signed an agreement, and in choosing Christmas Day for the tip-off of their greed-delayed season have done the Beatles one better. (John Lennon, some may recall, once mused that his band had become more popular than Jesus.)
Before getting our anti-secularist knickers in too tight a twist, we might review the history of observing Christmas in this country. The Puritans who came to this continent so despised Christmas that they banned its observance and fined anyone who even mentioned St. Nicholas. In 1789, the year the United States adopted its constitution, Congress conducted business as usual throughout the day on Dec. 25. Not until 1870 did Christmas become a federal holiday.
The weirdness of traditions surrounding Jesus’ birth goes back to the beginning. We sing carols, of course, because the ancient stories tell us that even angels couldn’t think of responses more apropos than that. Our gift-giving customs apparently follow the example of the “Magi,” a mysterious contingent of astrologers from “the East.”
The biblical story of the Magi’s visit lists their offerings as gold, frankincense and myrrh — “gifts fit for a king,” says most every commentary on these matters. Gold? Indeed. But have you ever heard an ancient tale in which a worried monarch cries out, “My kingdom for some frankincense!”?
An academic journal that arrived this week argues that frankincense had more value in the ancient world as medicine than as perfume, its commonly assumed use. For many centuries, people in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have used frankincense as an herbal remedy for arthritis.
At this point in my life, the Magi’s gifting pattern makes perfect sense. Gold will afford us some fun now, and we might bank a bit for later. But eventually we’ll need that frankincense, and whatever gold we’ve saved will inevitably go toward purchasing more.
And myrrh? No mystery there. Although poison if ingested, it could dull the pain that accompanied dying. Mixed with aloes, it also became a fragrant ointment lovingly applied to a still-warm corpse, making it ready for burial.
This last one proved the only gift the Magi’s original recipient ever used. The other two he presumably gave away. A share of that secondary giving has come my way. I don’t possess all the gold I’d like, but I do have all I need. Modern painkillers abound in my medicine cabinet, but old-fashioned, long-standing, trusted, intimate loves and friendships best enable my creaky joints to greet every new day as a blessing. And even now, I know what hands will someday anoint me and lovingly hold me as I enter the last birthing that awaits.
I’ll sleep well tonight. All the gifts one could want I already have. As for the wealthy, young hoopsters and Claus-clad cheerleaders who will cavort on television Sunday, or the footballers who will maul each other for a few hours on the neighboring channels, I hope someone has saved them some frankincense — and told them about the myrrh.