Sunday 3 December 2023

Advent 1: The First Christmas Card

It’s the start of Advent today, and it’s perilously close to Christmas and I haven’t thought about sending any Christmas cards yet. I prefer sending cards through the post because electronic means removes all physical connection between me and the receiver (and is just an excuse to be lazy and imply that I don’t care enough about my family and friends or think they’re worth the mild inconvenience of buying a card, writing it and posting it). It’s always better to know that the card you receive actually has the person’s DNA on it, don’t you think?

The official history of the Christmas card begins in 1843 when the first modern card was produced. But did you know that there is something that could be regarded as the first Christmas card that was sent in 1611? It also has a link to the lgbt+ community because the person who received it was our old gay friend King James I of Great Britain (1566-1625).

They may not have had our idea of a Christmas card in those days, but they exchanged presents, usually after Christmas Day, and more usually at New Year or the big Christmas feasting day of Twelfth Night (6th January).

The card King James received was actually a folded manuscript which may originally have been presented to him as a scroll. The centre of the manuscript contains the figure of a rose. This is significant, because it was sent and signed by Michael Maier (1568-1622), a German physician, alchemist, and advocate of a new religion called Rosicusianism (or Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross). The shape of the rose figure is made up of text in Latin forming a greeting to King James and an acrostic message of blessings.

Above the rose is a greeting, also in Latin. It says “A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612. Dedicated and consecrated with humble service and submission, from Michael Maier, German, Count Palatine, Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy, Knight and Poet Laureate.” If that’s doesn’t sound like a very fancy way of saying “Best wishes, King James, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, from Michael Maier”, I don’t know what is.

But why did Michael Maier send the message? And what is significant about the Rosicrucian symbolism?

What is Rosicrucianism anyway? It’s not so much a new religion as a new esoteric movement that combined aspects of several other religions. It included Christian mysticism, the Kabbala (a mixture of occultism, astrology, alchemy and bit of Christian and Jewish doctrine), and Hermeticism (the teachings of a legendary figure who was considered to be the Greek god Hermes merged with the Egyptian god Thoth). Rosicrucianism still exists today, but is more akin to a revival, like neo-paganism and modern wicca.

No-one knows when Michael Maier arrived in England, only that it was sometime during 1611. As far as the Christmas message is concerned, there’s no evidence that he delivered it in person, or that he was even still in England at the time. However, Maier was back in England during 1612 for a very special reason – the signing of the marriage settlement between King James’ daughter Princess Elizabeth to Prince Friedrich V, Elector Palatine of the Rhine (later the King and Queen of Bohemia). Maier presented a poem to King James in celebration. Perhaps his Christmas message was a diplomatic greeting during the marriage negotiations. This marriage was primarily political, made to cement an alliance between two Protestant nations, but there has been speculation about another reason for Maier’s presence, to cement a secret Rosicrucian alliance.

In the same year that Maier sent his Christmas message to King James, the monarch published a new version of the Bible, what is still called the King James Bible. Among many Rosicrucian historians there is a belief that this new Bible contains many coded Rosicrucian references, and that many of the men who put the Bible together were secretly Rosicrucian. This would provide Maier with a good reason for Rosicrucian elements to be put in his Christmas message. It all sounds very “da Vinci Code” to me – a lot of circumstantial evidence linked together with fanciful speculation.

Maier himself wrote that he had only heard about the Rosicrucians when he was in England. This makes it unlikely that he would put any secret symbolism in his message. So far, non-one has come up with any evidence that someone else wrote the message and used Maier as a courier. Why would he sign his own name? So it seems unlikely for him to be sent on a secret Rosicrucian mission to England as claimed. But, if he had heard about them early enough in 1611 and got to learn all their teachings and beliefs he may have put them in his message. Who knows?

King James didn’t adopt Rosicrucianism, which was probably a good thing bearing in mind that Rosicrucianism, even today, is quite homophobic. The last thing King James had on his mind was getting rid of his “toy boys” to please a German monarch.

Speaking of which, Michael Maier was involved in the Overbury Murder, the mysterious death of Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613. King James’ toy boy at the time, Sir Robert Carr, was found guilty of his murder. You can read a bit more about in this article I wrote a few years ago.

While Overbury was imprisoned in the Tower of London his health deteriorated. Several times he wrote to the Lieutenant of the Tower to permit Michael Maier to visit him as his physician. This was denied every time and Overbury died. His death was treated as natural, though several conspiracy theories circulated. It was two years later that evidence emerged that Overbury was murdered, and Sir Robert Carr was one of the people dragged into the conspiracy and found guilty of murder. To be honest, Carr probably was involved.

So, King James’s very first Christmas card has a lot more behind it than just a seasonal message of good cheer. There were secret codes and conspiracy theories. If you are still thinking of sending cards this year, yes, even an e-card, just take a look at the image and the greeting. You never know, there may be secret messages concealed in them.

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