It's hard to avoid "nativity scenes" in America around this time of year - the poor parents with their newborn in a manger, surrounded by animals, the 3 Wise Men kneeling before the child and forking over the gifts. Bah, I discount the whole scene - it's a conflated mess, pulling ideas across sources, piled on with sentimental embellishments from centuries of tradition. Even the authoritative source for the Magi story (the book of Matthew 2) implies that the Magi visited Jesus when he was a child, in a house, quite some after the birth. When the jealous king Herod declares the slaughter of the innocents, attempting to slay his prophesied rival, he starts with 2 year-olds!
Don't think I'm hating on the Christmas - I love the season, and fully embrace it as an important time of the year to reflect on faith, beliefs, and family. I admire the folks in my life that have taken up a religious calling in service to others. But I also can’t help turning a critical idea to the sources of ideas, customs, and traditions. Santa is a representation of Odin and the Wild Hunt, Jesus wasn't born in December, and the Wise Men never showed up at the manger. But you probably knew all that already; gamers are a discerning bunch.
Nonetheless, the journey of the Magi is an amazing story from the perspective of the mythic themes involved. The end of an age and the beginning of a new one is a time of signs and portents; the idea that foreign astrologers and esoteric masters from far away places have read the stars and come on a lengthy pilgrimage fires the imagination. What if a bunch of exotic and powerful strangers showed up in that muddy village your D&D characters call "home base" and suddenly proclaimed the bawling toddler of a serf down the road was the new king of the world? Hah. Interesting things would ensue, would they not? What would the players choose?
People in power fight to maintain it, and the "slaughter of the innocents" as an attempt to defeat prophecy is a theme that appears elsewhere in literature and fantasy, too. It has historical antecedents in the birth legends of both Sargon the Great and Moses, other children that escaped murder attempts in response to prophecy. It's a motif that was featured in the film Willow and that Sword of Truth TV series (based on those Terry Goodkind books).
Of course, I can't discuss the Magi without reflecting on the knowledge they brought home with them of the impending changes to their world. Tradition has the Magi visiting from Ethiopia, Arabia, and Persia, although the term "Magi" comes from Zoroastrianism, a predecessor to Christianity. Imagine the alienation one would feel after learning the prophecies were true, and the traditional world-view would soon be eclipsed by a new religion that would sweep the ancient world and overturn the old order? I've been reading a lot about the conquistador's role in Latin American history and the role of prophecy in the downfall of the Aztecs; we just passed our own "apocalypse" of sorts - that Mayan 2-21-2012 excitement - apocalyptic thoughts have been in the air.
I'll close this brief meditation with excellent words from the poet TS Elliot. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, all!
"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
TS Eliot; The Journey of the Magi