The wisdom of making a list of things to do in the run-up to Christmas is acknowledged by all.
Right now, all over the country, there are lists pinned to kitchen doors and stuck on refrigerators and stuffed into pockets. There are commands, underlined, on wipe-clean notice boards, saying “get chestnuts” and there are seasonal exhortations, such as “Sellotape” and “find angel” and “defrost”.
By this time, many families will boast as many as three or four lists, scattered round the house, including an urgent top-priority master list. Tis the season of the jolly felt-tip highlighter pen. As the great day approaches, excitement mounts as more and more ticks appear on the list.
The tradition goes back a very long way. In pre-Christian times, round about the winter solstice, crude hieroglyphs, scratched on stones, said “More woad!” and “check mistletoe” and “send out invites for pagan rite”. These people are believed to have been the first to use the tick as a primitive religious symbol.
Now, the really exciting news. Archeologists believe that lists were kept by the Wise Men at the time of the Nativity. In fact, this use of this basic organisational system is probably the very reason they were reckoned to be wise in the first place. An ancient astral chart was recently discovered near Bethlehem and the experts were puzzled by two words scrawled in the margin. They were obviously written in a hurry and were difficult to decipher, but now it seems pretty certain that these words are “order sprouts”.
This was a major advance in scholarship and it throws a whole new light on what we have hitherto understood about the history of the list-making culture. Just last week the experts detected more faint marks on the back of the chart that have convinced them that it belonged to the Wise Man known as Melchior. One line appears to say: “Bear Gift – platinum? silver? bronze? ornament? gold?” Then all items but the last one are crossed out.
The discovery also solved the mystery of two other separate fragments of scrolls found on a nearby site by a different team of archaeologists. One said: “Get voucher or poss myrrh.” The other said: “Frankincense, or something equally nice and smelly.”
It seems that Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar did what many of us do to this day: they consolidated their three lists into one main list. This carried such reminders as “Borrow copy of Bethlehem Good Inn Guide” and “Caspar to bring early form of telescope for observing star” and “We need five more tent pegs”.
There is strong evidence that there was originally a Fourth Wise Man. “Contact Tarquin” appears on the list heavily underlined, then “Get Tarquin’s address”. The name then shows up several times with an increasing number of question marks. Finally, probably in Balthazar’s handwriting, the message appears: “Tarquin can’t make it – says his camel is playing up.”
We know that the Wise Men went to see King Herod from the entry saying “RSVP Herod”, followed by: “Present (bottle?) for KH”. Later on, “bottle” has been crossed out and the words “box of dates” have been put in its place. And we can find confirmation of the meeting with the Wise Men on Herod’s list where it says: “Tasteful card for WM – picture of self with family or poss young girl playing lute? Or bleak landscape with humble abode.” In what is obviously a cynical afterthought, he has written: “Pref a charity card – anything except Amnesty or Save the Children.”
Herod’s list is remarkably comprehensive. It begins “Rule despotically”, goes on to “More despotism!” then to: “consult WM” and “be troubled”. Finally, there is the chilling memo to himself: “Do something about firstborn.”
In a ruined shelter for shepherds in a remote area, an ancient calendar was found recently that could well play an important part in the story. Different reminders appear next to the different days. “Abide in fields” is followed by “a in f” and then “keep abiding”. Another entry says: “Don’t forget flocks!!!!” The four exclamation marks suggest this was a crucial part of their way of life. The next one says: “Keep w over f’s.” On what would have been Christmas Eve somebody has written “Expect g ts” which is almost certainly a reference to the glad tidings they were soon to hear.
On the shepherd’s calendar one other word appears. This may not be so important as all the others, but after all these centuries it carries a message that still has resonance with us in these modern times. It simply says “Parsley.” Put it on your list now.
Coming up next …
I’m away on my Christmas holidays from 20 December until 4 January. I’ve scheduled some seasonal postings to keep your Christmas spirit topped up (RJG take note!).
- 23 December – Festive games for all the family
- 24 December – A list to end all lists
- 25 December – It’s still not too late to sign the Santa clause
- 01 January – 12 useful things for today
Happy Christmas to one and all, may your Yuletide be filled with warmth, happiness and good cheer.