Epiphany: Three Kings Follow the Star

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Lovers of carols and Christmas parties know that this season has 12 days, packed with golden rings, calling birds and various kinds of gentry, musician and domestic workers. December 25 is Christmas – and 25 minus 12 does equal 13. Do the math and you will see why shopping malls, newspapers, television networks, and other cultural fortresses annually deliver some kind of “Twelve Days of Christmas” blitz, beginning on December 13.

The problem is that for centuries church calendars in the East and the West have agreed that there are twelve days of Christmas and they begin on Christmas and end on January 6.

The twelve days of Christmas end with the Feast of Epiphany also called “The Adoration of the Magi” or “The Manifestation of God.”  Celebrated on January 6, it is known as the day of the Three Kings (or wise men/magi): Caspar, Melchior, and Balshazar. According to an old legend based on a Bible story, these three kings saw, on the night when Christ was born, a bright star, followed it to Bethlehem and found there the Christ child and presented him with gold, frankincense and myrrh.

January 6, the last day of Christmas, comes with its own traditions, rituals and symbols.  Carolers are going from house to house; in many homes the Christmas Tree is taken down and in some areas is burnt in a big bonfire.  For the children, this is an especially joyous occasion because, associated with taking down the tree goes the “plundern” (raiding) of the tree. The sweets, chocolate ornaments wrapped in foil or cookies (which have replaced the sugar plums) are the raiders’ rewards. 

The history of Christmas (the festival of the nativity of Jesus Christ) is intertwined with that of the Epiphany.  The commemoration of the Baptism (also called the Day of Lights, i.e. the Illumination of Jesus) was also known as the birthday of Jesus, because he was believed to have been born then of the Virgin or reborn in baptism.  In some records, Christmas and Epiphany were referred to as the first and second nativity; the second being Christ’s manifestation to the world.

In the fourth century, December 25 was finally adopted by the Western Christian Church as the date of the Feast of Christ’s birth.  It is believed that this change in date gave rise to the tradition of the “12 Days of Christmas.”  While the Western Christian Church celebrates December 25th, the Eastern Christian Church to this day recognizes January 6 as the celebration of the nativity.  January 6 was also kept as the physical birthday in Bethlehem. In the Teutonic west, Epiphany became the Festival of the Three Kings (i.e. the Magi), or simply Twelfth Day.  

~Emily De Shazo

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