The Fifth Element #14

The custom of giving presents at Christmastime recalls the Magi, or wise men, of the Nativity story (Matthew 2:1-16), who were most likely not "kings" but astrologers. Paintings usually depict three wise men presenting gifts to a newborn in a stable. However, a persnickety reading of Matthew's text reveals that the precise number of Magi, although it must have been at least two, is not stated. The text specifically mentions a house rather than a stable, and implies that Jesus was a toddler. So much for the great Renaissance painters doing their research, or even reading carefully. The text, however, does specify three gifts, and it is that inventory—of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—which has given rise to the common (but not necessarily commonsense) inference that the number of wise men was three.

Many years ago I saw a droll card. On the front, in a cartoonish sketch, a short, fat, turbaned, bearded chap was frantically pulling along by the chains a typical Boris Karloff-style Dr. Frankenstein's monster. On the inside of the card, two other cartoon Magi are seen yelling "No, no! Frankincense!" In case you were wondering, frankincense is the dried resin of the Boswellia tree. It was and is used in perfumes and incense.

The liturgical celebration of the visit of the Magi is called the Epiphany, from the Greek word for "showing," "illumination," or "discovery." In modern speech, epiphany is often used to describe an unusually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something, or an unexpected sense of pure reality occasioned by the perception of something ordinary yet arresting. The modern notion of the secular epiphany is most closely associated with the fiction of James Joyce, although advertisements for expensive audio equipment run a close second.

Epiphany is celebrated January 6, 12 days after Christmas. This does not necessarily imply any judgment that the wise men arrived precisely 12 days after the Nativity, merely that their arrival—even two years later—is properly celebrated in the same season. The span of time between Christmas and Epiphany is what gives us both the Twelve Days of Christmas and Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night is richly imbued with lingering traces of pre-Christian European midwinter festivals. (Early Christianity was sometimes quite flexible in adapting to existing cultures and holidays.) In the Middle Ages, Twelfth Night was often an occasion for symbolic social inversions, and that tradition gave Shakespeare's comedy its name.

By the way, for those of you in or near southern New England, the Chorus of Westerly, Rhode Island, will perform its dramatic and musical A Celebration of Twelfth Night January 10-12, 2003. A cast of 300—including Morris dancers and juggling jesters—raises the roof of the performance hall, an acoustical gem of a converted 1880s-vintage church that retains most of its original horsehair plaster. Catch it if you can.

I'll get around to music and gift suggestions in a moment. First, I have a favor to ask.

Scurrying from one place to another at the Home Entertainment 2002 Show in New York City, I ran into my old chum John Bevier. I first knew John when he was at Sennheiser. Now he's with Audio Plus Services, US importers of, among others, JMlab loudspeakers. I told John that he was looking very well turned-out (as usual), and enviably fit and tanned. He chuckled and told me that he'd spent the previous two weeks in Kenya, working in a refugee camp for Sudanese Christians fleeing repression (or worse) in their home country. John's church had raised money for a water system for the refugee camp. He and others had gone over to see it completed.

That kind of thing can put our obsessions with this power cord and that speaker cable in a different perspective, can it not? So here's the favor I ask: Please visit the website John has put up, and use the Paypal button to donate $5 or $10 to John's refugee project. I have a sneaking suspicion that that will give you more satisfaction and peace of mind than any other money you spend this season.

Okay, public service announcement over. Let's get to the serious business of maxing out those credit cards, small bites first. Here are five Christmas-themed recordings of unusual artistic quality:

Kathleen Battle: A Christmas Celebration (Angel Classics 47587): I can put up with the occasionally sugary arrangements, because when Battle just lets go and sings, it's really something special.

Celestial Christmas (Celestial Harmonies 45040 et seq): This series of compilations from Teldec's classical catalog provides top-drawer performances of musical selections that are refreshingly unhackneyed.

Rejoice! A String Quartet Christmas, Vol.2 (John Marks Records JMR 18): No false modesty here, because the credit goes to the musicians anyway. In the first track (Bach-Gounod, Ave Maria), violinists Arturo Delmoni and Nina Bodnar play like twins separated at birth. The Renaissance motets arranged for string quartet are particularly evocative.

John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers: Christmas Night (Collegium 106): The gold standard in chamber-choir Christmas-carol singing.

Angels on High: A Robert Shaw Christmas (Telarc CD-80461): This collection is praiseworthy for its inclusion of more substantial works, such as Britten's A Ceremony of Carols and Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium.