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The Three Gurus of Christmas


We, the Citizens

By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer

Christmas has an ancient Indian connection. As old as Christmas itself.

We were reminded of this when we installed the Christmas Star, which we had brought from Kerala, and the Christmas Crib. A ‘crib’ is a baby’s bed but it traditionally refers to the manger, the hay-filled, cattle-food stall, into which the baby Jesus was laid because there was no room for them in any inn in Bethlehem. They had become migrants in their own land because of a heartless government order. It is a Christian tradition to replicate the scene of Christ’s birth. This diorama was first made by a simple Italian monk, Francis of Assisi, in 1223. Francis was not a historian, so though his depiction of the Nativity, that is the Birth, of Christ, was heart-warming, it was not accurate.

Home depictions of the Crib still show a bright star hanging above it. They also depict the Baby Jesus surrounded by his mother, his foster father, an ass and an ox warming him with their breath, shepherds and their sheep attracted by the unusual light of the Christmas Star; and three men wearing robes and turbans. The dioramas also feature the camels on which these three robed men, from the Orient, had “journeyed from afar”.

In fact, the overland trip from their Asian homeland was so long, and arduous, that they could not have reached Bethlehem when Jesus was still a baby! That wrong idea was a sort of religious jumla inserted to make the tale more attractive as well as a sort of promise of things to come!

Scholars believe that these Three Kings of the Orient did visit Jesus, but they reached Him years later when Christ’s family was settled in the town of Nazareth.

But who were these foreign visitors, also referred to as Three Wise Men? They said “We have seen his star in the East and have come to adore him” Only Astrologers associate stars with people and global events, not astronomers. India has had the world’s longest unbroken tradition of Astrology as a predictive system. Then these rich visitors brought three gifts for Christ’s family: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold is still a traditional gift to newborns in our land. Our temples are the greatest users of incense in the world. Many of the older Christian denominations also make liberal use of this holy smoke in their ceremonies. From a most practical point of view, it helps fumigate, that is sanitise, the atmosphere surrounding large congregations of people. In fact the word fumigate comes from the Latin word for smoke. The ancient religious ceremonies of India used smoke to sanitise places of worship long before virologists warned us about air-borne infections. Finally, myrrh which is from the sap of a hardy desert plant, was widely used by traditional doctors as a tonic and health restoring drug. The ayurvedic gugul is a close relative of myrrh.

Most impressively, however, are copies of theses from Mumbai’s famed Heras Institute of Indian History and Culture. There is, apparently, convincing evidence to lead to a strong belief that the Three Wise Men were astrologer-savants from India.

All these are interesting speculations to dwell over when it gets dark, early in our cold Winter evenings.

All religious celebrations have three extensions. First there is the Recollection of the event that inspired it. For Christmas, it is the Birth of Christ. If this is changed or substituted, the event loses all meaning. A Minister once tried to substitute the birth anniversary of a favourite politician for Christmas. That attempt fell flat on its face as it was overwhelmed by the universality of the Christmas observance. This extends far beyond the estimated number of Christians globally.

Second, there are its Festivities. Many visitors from all over the world, particularly those below 30, love the exuberance of Holi. They are unlikely to know much about its origins because they are more concerned with the enjoyment of the event.

Third there is the fickle finger of Fashions. Thanks to Covid restrictions, not many Christmas Cards flutter in our cottage, like celebratory butterflies; and digital cards are yukky.

But the millennia-long Indian connection with the Yuletide celebration will remain.

Happy Christmas!

(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 half-hour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who is a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)