Celebrated on January 6, the Holiday known as Epiphany, Theophany, or Three Kings’ Day is a Christian feast day commemorating God coming to earth as a human being through Jesus Christ. The holiday is known in Western Christianity as Three Kings’ Day because it celebrates the visitation of the Magi, or Wise Men, to Jesus. In the East, Christians celebrate the baptism of Jesus on this holiday.
So which is it? The visit of the Magi or the Baptism of Jesus? The answer is both, and more. This holiday began as an observance of the events included in the incarnation of the Christ, including his birth, the Wise Men, Jesus’ childhood events, his baptism, and even his first miracle (turning water into wine). The Baptism was the main event to celebrate, but all were included.
Most people probably thought Christmas over on the 26th when they returned unwanted gifts at the stores; however, January 6th is actually the last day of the Twelve Days of Christmas. This day was traditionally filled with door-to-door caroling and sometimes taking down the tree, where kids could “raid” the tree and find hidden candy and chocolate. In some places and in the Eastern Christian Church, this day is actually counted as Jesus’ birthday; not December 25th.
Today, there are different traditions in each country in the world that celebrate this holiday. Even in the United States, traditions vary based on location. For instance, in Colorado, Epiphany is celebrated by the “Great Fruitcake Toss.” This includes dressing up like a King or a fool, and competitions are held for who can throw the fruitcake the furthest. Another tradition is baking King Cakes in Louisiana, marking the time between Epiphany and Mardi Gras. In places in Virginia such as Colonial Williamsburg, Epiphany is celebrated along with Twelfth Night with dancing and weddings. They also eat big cakes that include fruitcake. In Florida, religious ceremonies are held in Greek Orthodox churches, and a cross is thrown into the Spring Bayou. Boys between the ages of 16-18 then jump in the water to find the cross; whoever gets it is blessed for the year.
The night before Three Kings’ Day, this was a prayer that was traditionally recited as “C+M+B” (standing for either “Christus Mansionem Benedictat” (Christ Bless this home) or the names of the three Magi, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar) was drawn over the door with chalk:
“CMB, protect us again this year from the dangers of fire and water."
Disneyland celebrates Three Kings’ Day January 4-6, and their celebration is taken from the Latin and Spanish-American traditions. Characters and others are dressed in Latin-American colorful attire as they hang flowers and banners; there are even statues of the Wise Men, and shoes filled with gifts. Guests will hear mariachi music and see dancers, and foods served will include King’s Cake (“Rosca de Reyes”), chimichangas, apples with caramel, sweet corn tamales, and other foods.
There are also parade celebrations for Three Kings’ Day in places such as East Harlem, NY; the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington; the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, Florida; downtown Los Angeles; and the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. Other types of celebrations also abound, including performances of the story of the Three Kings in Washington, DC, dances that take place in New Mexico’s tribal areas; and others.
So the next time you find yourself feeling jealous of Chanukkah, remember that Christmas has 12 days, not just one.
There is, however, more to this story, because the Wise Men were not Kings, and there were definitely more than just three of them. Obviously, traditions change over time, and just like some story tellers, become different each time they are observed. So what is the truth about these Wise Men we read about and celebrate?
First, here’s what is written in Matthew 2:1-12:
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”
These men were scholars, and were from Mesopotamia or Persia (not the “Orient” like in the song). They saw the star in the Eastern direction and, because they were educated, had been studying the stars and scriptures. We know they were Persian because the term “Magi” originated among the people of Persia and Syria. They followed the star by way of caravan.
This year, before the Christmas decorations come down, remember there is still more to celebrate! Maybe a visit to Burger King to get some crowns would be the best way end the holiday the right way!