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The gifts of the Maji – We Three Kings a Civil War song

Written By | Dec 24, 2014

VIENNA, Va., December 24, 2014 —Among the favorites of Christmas carols and songs, surely “We Three Kings” ranks near the top. Everyone knows the basic words:

“We three kings of orient are, Bearing gifts we traverse afar;

Field and fountain, moor and mountain, Following yonder star.”

And then the refrain:

“O star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright,

Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to Thy perfect light.”

The words and music were penned by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891), an Episcopalian bishop, who graduated from the University of Vermont and ultimately graduated from the General Theological Seminary in 1850. Hopkins would go on to be a deacon, author, illustrator, and designer, as well as a music teacher in his seminary. He also enjoyed working in stained glass.

John Henry Hopkins, 1865

John Henry Hopkins, 1865

He composed “We Three Kings” in 1857, but it was not published until 1863, right in the midst of the Civil War. Actually he composed the words to this, his most famous hymn, as a piece to be performed in a Christmas pageant for students at the same seminary he had graduated from.

The second, third and fourth verses of the song place the spotlight of history on the three kings, who may have been wisemen, and in some writings, magicians.

Whatever their actual calling was, they are now endemic to the Christmas story of the Bible. The final or fifth verse is a paean to the Christ Child, with the sounds of Alleluia ringing across the plains.

And here is where legend, apocryphal stories, and a variety of traditions through various religions come in to add their identification of the three men about whom we sing.

Suddenly they have names; Caspar (or Gaspar), Melchior and Balthasar (or Balthazar) are the men who sing the tales of myrrh, frankincense and gold.

It seems that identifying them by name comes from a Greek manuscript which may have been composed around Alexandria (Greece, not Virginia) around 500 A.D. and which was then translated into Latin.  Another Greek document has surfaced, dating to the 8th century, presumably of Irish derivation, which was also translated into Latin.  It continues the story of these three men and gives other details into their lives.

You can read various translations of the Bible and find them referred to in different ways, including as astrologers, but never are they referred to as kings! And never are they named.

They all came from the East, and some think the three men were descendants of Noah’s three sons who survived the flood.

The Maji by Botticelli

The Maji by Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli who painted the magnificent painting of the Visit of the Magi in 1475, used his own sons in the painting as the magi. Thus it is obvious that the story was firmly entrenched by that time.

A 14th century cleric, John of Hildesheim, who added to the legend, said that the kings came from “India, Chaldea and Persia” and only met on the outskirts of Jerusalem and then continued together onto Bethlehem to present their gifts to the Christ child.

Some authorities impute that frankincense represented divinity to Caspar; supposedly Melchior brought gold representing kingship, and Balthazar brought his gift of myrrh for humanity.

The custom of offering these three items (or representations thereof) as Epiphany gifts was common for centuries. In 1756, The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that: “His Majesty, attended by the principal officers at Court … went to the Chapel Royal at St James’ and offered gold, myrrh and frankincense.”

Even today some families retain a gift or two for giving on Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, representing the date on which the three visitors arrived with their gifts to the Babe in the manger. Many families leave the Christmas Tree, creche or other decorations of the season up until that date as well.

Whether these men, who made a long and perilous journey that night so long ago, were wise men, kings, or even astrologers, their part in the Christmas story remains part of the religious tradition.

During those dark nights of December in 1863 in the North and the South, it is doubtful that the men on the battlefields were even aware of this then-new song’s existence. They were busy merely trying to stay alive amid gunfire and the roar of cannon.

Above all, we can be sure that they wished for peace on earth and good will to men, as we still do today.

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Martha Boltz

Martha Boltz was a frequent contributor to the long-running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War section in both print and online editions. A regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page dating back to 1994, she is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history." She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."