Today, January 6, is Epiphany for most of the Western Church, (Eastern churches use a different calendar) the celebration of the arrival of the Magi and introduction of the Messiah to the world. (image: "Adoration of the Magi" by Lawrence OP )
The Magi, or the Three Kings, are only mentioned in the English translation of the Bible as men who studied stars, presumably astrologers who foresaw the birth of a Messiah. (Or my cynicism speaking—astronomers who predicted the convergence of the planets and wanted to find the best spot to observe, but I could be wrong about that. <G>)
Traditionally speaking, the Magi have been called kings, presumably due to the reference in Psalm 72:10 “The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents; the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring him gifts: and all the kings of the earth shall adore him." So somewhere along the way Caspar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Balthasar of India became those kings.
Matthew wrote that the Magi brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Whether Matthew was using a metaphor or not is unknown, but the gold is supposed to signify the regal status of the Messiah, frankincense his divinity, myrrh, his human nature. I had to look up why myrrh is human. It’s the resin of a thorny tree (shades of more metaphors) and is used in perfumes and medicine. Those old guys really knew how to tell a story with depth!
The night before Epiphany is traditionally called Twelfth Night and in some areas is marked by a chalking of doors with a code representing the three kings. The initials C, M, B in that code also represent the Latin blessing Christus mansionem benedicat for blessing the house. We were once a very literate people, weren’t we?
In western countries, January 6th is often the day we take down our holiday decorations. But the tradition that appeals most to me is the baking of the Three Kings Cake. (Nicola talked about the Regency variation yesterday.) The cake is usually accompanied by a paper crown and has a bean or toy baked inside. I think I like the sound of the Spanish version best—filled with cream or chocolate. Ummm, yum. In New Orleans, the cake is a cinnamon pastry that might have cream cheese or jam inside. And the person who gets the plastic doll has to buy the next King Cake. (image: "King Cake" by PetitPlat – Stephanie Kilgast)
There are a number of other traditions associated with the day, including children receiving gifts and women being waited on in Ireland. But for a change, I can’t find any pagan association to the holiday, so Epiphany traditions are probably more Christian than Christmas will ever be!
Do you have a Twelfth Night tradition? When do you take your decorations down?