The Mysterious Magi: Who Were They?

Roman mosaic in Ravenna, showing Magi in Parthian dress

6th century Roman mosaic in Ravenna, showing Magi in Parthian dress

Today’s post is a lot of historical background, much of it research for my book So To Honor Him, put together to explain a story you’ve probably heard. If you’re into history and mystery-solving, come along with me. (Stay close; we’re going to go through a lot of material.)

We’re going to talk about the Magi, or the Wise Men, spoken of in the Biblical book of Matthew.

First off, despite your annual inundation of Christmas cards and nativity scenes, let’s admit that most of what the common man on the street will remember in reference to the Magi is sketchy at best and is not found anywhere in the Bible. Continue reading

Tyspwn or Ctesiphon

An 1864 photograph of the Taq-i Kisra. Note the figures standing atop the arch; we've always had stupid yahoos as tourists, I guess.

An 1864 photograph of the Taq-i Kisra. Note the figures standing atop the arch; we’ve always had stupid yahoos as tourists, I guess.

A drive problem is preventing more Route 66 updates — don’t worry, the photos aren’t lost, just presently inaccessible — so it’s background day here at the blog! Today we’re going to learn a tiny bit about the city where Saman, one of the Megistanes in So To Honor Him, resides — when he’s not traveling, that is.

The Megistanes, as you may recall from a previous post, were a hereditary priesthood serving four empires in succession. By Saman’s time, they were under the Parthians. Tyspwn, known better today by its latinized name Ctesiphon, was the capital city of the Parthian empire. Continue reading

What You Did Last Week

So To Honor Him book cover, three riders on camels against a dramatic sky, with a brilliant star, and a super-imposed drum

So To Honor Him was released a day early to newsletter subscribers. Not only did they have the first look, but they had a different price: pay what you want, and all the profit would go to International Justice Mission.

(All direct sales profits last week went to IJM, but on official launch day, the price was a fixed $1.99.)

English: Amanda Palmer Live 2008

Amanda Palmer and I are very infrequently mistaken for one another. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wasn’t sure about setting up a pay-what-you-want day. I mean, that kind of thing works for people like Amanda Palmer, but, well, I’m not Amanda Palmer. What if everyone just grabbed the story for free and nothing at all went to International Justice Mission? Continue reading

Herod the Great (Big Jerk) in History

etching of Herod the Great

Herod the Great

I know well enough that the Jews will keep a festival upon my death, however it is in my power to be mourned for on other accounts, and to have a splendid funeral, if you will but be subservient to my commands. Do you but take care to send soldiers to encompass these [illustrious] men that are now in custody, and slay them immediately upon my death, and then all Judea, and every family of them, will weep at it, whether they will or no.

This was how Herod intended to ensure mourning at his funeral. Yikes. (Fortunately, these orders were not carried out after his death.) Continue reading

Songs of the Little Drummer Boy

Detail of the Three Kings from The Adoration of the Magi, tapestry, by Edward Burne JonesLast time I talked about the weird appearances of Little Drummer Boy figurines in Nativity scenes and the fascinating historical research I got to do for So To Honor Him. Today I’m going to talk about the obligatory soundtrack for the book: “The Carol of the Drum” or “The Little Drummer Boy,” depending on when it was recorded and by whom.

I’m not even going to try to list here all the myriad covers of this song, or even just the better ones. I’ll simply point out some really stand-out recordings and explain why I think they deserve a mention. I know I’m leaving out a lot of favorites; feel free to comment below with a plug for your choice!

Continue reading

So To Honor Him – a tale of the drummer boy

Garishly-dressed drummer boy with Italian Greyhound.

This is more than a bit ugly. And why does he come with a dog?

Maybe it’s always been there, but a few years ago I started noticing a curious trend of Drummer Boy figures in Nativity sets. Had the carol become so prominent in our Christmas traditions that we were now including the recent and wholly fictional character in depictions of the scene? And why were so many of them oddly inappropriate to the setting? I was simultaneously a little weirded out and a little intrigued.

I’d always liked “The Carol of the Drum” at least a bit. It’s simple and not terribly authentic, but it’s got a decent message (“your best is your gift”) and anyway it’s catchy, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum. It was only written in 1941, allegedly based on a similar Czech song but the original (according to Wikipedia, anyway) has never been found. It probably has more to do with the carol “Patapan.”

It became hugely popular after the Von Trapp family (of The Sound of Music fame) recorded it and Harry Simeone recorded it two or three times, renaming it “The Little Drummer Boy.”

K.K. Davis' "The Little Drummer Boy"...

K.K. Davis’ original “Carol of the Drum” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I’d always enjoyed the song. But it bothered me. I mean really, who plays a drum for a baby? Most of my time around infants is filled with admonishments to make no noise, lest we wake the sleeping screamer. I know people who even travel with white noise machines for their young children. And how did the Wise Men happen across a renegade drummer from an anachronistic military band? Because that’s how the kid is usually depicted in illustrations. And where are his parents, anyway?

If you want skip ahead to the story, jump to the bottom of the page.
If you want to hear about the research, read on for a bit.

This has bothered me off and on for years. And then I found my brain starting to do something about it. Where did this kid with the drum come from? Continue reading