Most of us know the basics of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ: Mary and Joseph on their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the overcrowded inns, the stable, baby Jesus in his manger, the three wise men, or Magi, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Why then, when you look at this wonderful felt nativity scene from Kyrgyzstan, are the three Magi joined by a fourth? We have the usual three: Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior – but beside them stand a fourth, mysterious figure. Some stories call him Artaban; a wise man who also saw the star signalling the birth of a king and decided to follow it. On his way, he became distracted and ended up not making it to the stable to greet the little baby Jesus. Instead he spent his years (and the gifts he had intended for the little new king) on helping the needy, and did not meet Jesus until thirty years later, just before his crucifixion.
Another legend of the Fourth Magus stems from Russia*. It describes a tall bearded man, dressed in a woollen coat and hood, who saw the star all the way from his northern, wintry home, and decided to follow it to meet the new king. Where the other Magi rode camels, the Fourth Magus lashed reindeer to his large wooden sledge, packed it with gifts for the little king, and set off towards Bethlehem. Alas, he never made it. Did he succumb to the icy winter? Did he get lost on his way? Who knows…? But some of the story of the Fourth Magus must have seeped into our legends and stories of Christmas today, where many children are still sitting on Christmas night, waiting for a tall, bearded man, riding a reindeer sledge full of gifts.
Merry Christmas from us here at ethnographica!
*The story of the Fourth Magus was borrowed from a text by Mary-Gabrielle Blanchet, from The Clarion, January 2005.