This time of year, there’s something special in the air. For some inexplicable reason, people seem to be happier, more gregarious, generous, and solicitous. For Christians, echoing the sentiment of Luke 2:14, it’s the manifestation of “on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” For children, above and beyond the festivities, there’s the hope of seeing Clement C. Moore’s “miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.” The magic of Christmas is definitely a palpable thing, but how did it literally get to be called “magic” and where did the word even come from?
The word magic, originally meaning a sort of ‘supernatural art that uses rituals and secret knowledge to influence events and manipulate the natural world’ comes to us via the Old French magique, which finds its root in the Ancient Greek magos, referring to a member of the learned, priestly class. The first known use of the term can be found in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, where, written circa 1387-95, The General Prologue tells of a Doctor of Medicine who “kept his patient a full great deal in hours by his magic natural”, most likely referring to the use of astrology and natural healing methods.
Moving away from a strict association with divination, our word next found itself being used by William Shakespeare to describe an unexplainable influence that produces surprising or unexpected results. Written around 1616, his play, The Winter’s Tale, has Sicilian King Leontes note the royal aura of his queen, stating: “Oh Royal Piece: There’s Magic in thy Majesty.”
Advancing to the 1780’s, though science was beginning to offer better explanations for phenomena, “magic” was still used to define the surprising and unexpected. Robert Jephson’s 1781 play, The Count of Narbonne, mentions: “Yet still my eyes Again are drawn, as if by magic on him.” Adding to this 2 years later, The Gentleman’s Magazine writes: “All own thy sway, and single or combined, At thy command, like magic, seize the mind.”
Finally, though surprising results do yet occur, we, with a supposedly firm belief in modern sciences and explanations, began to accept the term magic as having to do more with illusions, skilful deception, and sleight of hand, as can be seen in the title of Henri Garenne’s 1886 book, “The Art of Modern Conjuring, Magic and Illusions.”
So what does this mean for the magic of Christmas? Most of us are fairly certain that there’s no inexplicable influencing of events or manipulation happening – unless you count aspects of rampant consumerism – so it can’t be that. Though it does happen as if by magic at this time of year and it does take a certain degree of sleight of hand to properly wrap some gifts, this can only partially explain it. Perhaps it is best to explain it as an unexplainable influence: as Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel wrote in the classic 1957 children’s book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, “‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!’”