In reading the title of this post most of you probably had a tune along with those words. But have you ever wondered why it is called the Twelve days of Christmas?
Well, the twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days from December 25 - January 5. January 6 otherwise known as Epiphany is the day that the wise men came to worship the Christ child. The season before Christmas - the four weeks leading up to Christmas - are known as Advent. The two weeks after Christmas and before Epiphany are known as Christmastide or Twelvetide.
All of this to say that in some cultures presents are given more on Epiphany than on Christmas.
Last week, I talked about one of my favorite Christmas stories being The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. For a long time one of my other favorite Christmas stories is called Amahl and the Night Visitors.
Amahl and the Night Visitors was the first opera written for television. It aired on Christmas Eve 1951. This opera was written for children by Gian Carlo Menotti.
The opera tells of three wise men (kings) on their way to visit the Christ child. The wise men Melchior, Balthazar, and Kaspar stop for the night of the home of Amahl and his mother. They (Amahl and his mother) are poor shepherds and Amahl is a cripple. When the wise men arrive, they are invited in to spend the night with Amahl and his mother. Since they are poor and have no food of their own in the house the mother sends Amahl to call the other shepherds to bring gifts to the kings. The next morning as the kings prepare to leave Amahl gets healed and asks if he can go with the kings to bring his crutch to the Christ child. To which his mother agrees and the opera ends with Amahl leaving with the kings.
Menotti was inspired by a painting of The Adoration of the Magi, by Hieronymus Bosch. The painting reminded Menotti of Christmases of his childhood. In Menotti's introduction to the premier of Amahl, he gave these remarks:
"This is an opera for children because it tries to recapture my own childhood. You see, when I was a child I lived in Italy, and in Italy we have no Santa Claus. I suppose that Santa Claus is much too busy with American children to be able to handle Italian children as well. Our gifts were brought to us by the Three Kings, instead.
I actually never met the Three Kings — it didn't matter how hard my little brother and I tried to keep awake at night to catch a glimpse of the Three Royal Visitors, we would always fall asleep just before they arrived. But I do remember hearing them. I remember the weird cadence of their song in the dark distance; I remember the brittle sound of the camel's hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious tinkling of their silver bridles.
My favorite king was King Melchior, because he was the oldest and had a long white beard. My brother's favorite was King Kaspar. He insisted that this king was a little crazy and quite deaf. I don't know why he was so positive about his being deaf. I suspect it was because dear King Kaspar never brought him all the gifts he requested. He was also rather puzzled by the fact that King Kaspar carried the myrrh, which appeared to him as a rather eccentric gift, for he never quite understood what the word meant.
To these Three Kings I mainly owe the happy Christmas seasons of my childhood and I should have remained very grateful to them. Instead, I came to America and soon forgot all about them, for here at Christmas time one sees so many Santa Clauses scattered all over town. Then there is the big Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza, the elaborate toy windows on Fifth Avenue, the one-hundred-voice choir in Grand Central Station, the innumerable Christmas carols on radio and television — and all these things made me forget the three dear old Kings of my old childhood.
But in 1951 I found myself in serious difficulty. I had been commissioned by the National Broadcasting Company to write an opera for television, with Christmas as deadline, and I simply didn't have one idea in my head. One November afternoon as I was walking rather gloomily through the rooms of the Metropolitan Museum, I chanced to stop in front of the Adoration of the Kings by Hieronymus Bosch, and as I was looking at it, suddenly I heard again, coming from the distant blue hills, the weird song of the Three Kings. I then realized they had come back to me and had brought me a gift.
I am often asked how I went about writing an opera for television, and what are the specific problems that I had to face in planning a work for such a medium. I must confess that in writing "Amahl and the Night Visitors," I hardly thought of television at all. As a matter of fact, all my operas are originally conceived for an ideal stage which has no equivalent in reality, and I believe that such is the case with most dramatic authors. —Gian-Carlo Menotti"(1)
As a child, I would play the CD recording of Amahl and the Night Visitors that my family had many times a day for a while until my mother said I could only play it on limited occasions. Then in College I had the wonderful opportunity to play one of the shepherds and dance for my college's Christmas performance of this opera.
One of the reasons that this is my favorite story is not only that Amahl is healed but also the picture of Christ that is portrayed. While Amahl is out gathering the shepherds, the kings take a moment to ask his mother if she knows the child they are looking for. She takes their descriptions to mean her own son but the picture that the kings paint of Christ is one of my favorites.
"Have you seen a child the color of wheat...
the color of dawn?
His eyes are mild; his hands are those of a king
– as king he was born.
Incense, myrrh, and gold we bring to his side;
and the eastern star is our guide.
. . . .
Have you seen a child the color of earth...
the color of thorn?
His eyes are sad; his hands are those of the poor
as poor he was born.
Incense, myrrh, and gold we bring to his side,
and the eastern star is our guide.
. . . .
The child we seek holds the seas
and the winds on his palm.
The child we seek has the moon
and the stars at his feet.
Before him, the eagle is gentle the lion is meek."(2)
Now, I would like to take a small moment to reflect on my blog this year. Three months of this blog! Wow! I want to say thank you to all my readers. Thank you for joining me so far on this journey. It has definitely surprised me to see how many people would want to read what I write. So, as this year of many surprises and unexpected plans is coming to a close I hope that y'all will join me in the new year for many more stories of little known figures, or little known stories of well known figures.
* The painting by Hieronymus Bosch in the article is from the Met Museum.