The Feast of Epiphany and The Three Magi

Epiphany means the revelation of a man as God. The Christian feast is commemorated on the 6th of January (by Gregorian calendar). The Magi, or in European Continental standard the Three Holy Kings, form part of that legend. They gripped peoples’ imagination much more than the abstract revelation.

In Greek dominated Egypt under the Ptolemaic dynasty (it ended with the death of Cleopatra VII Philopator in 30 BC), the night between the 5th and the 6th of January was the feast of the sun god Aion's birth to his virgin mother Kore. During the following day, people would get water from the Nile which was reputed to be healing water for that day only. Any similarities to any later legends in other religions are obviously purely coincidental.

In Rome, the word Epiphany came to mean the moment when the Emperor became a God, starting with Julius Caesar on January 10th when he crossed the Rubicon. In time, it became synonymous with Advent, the arrival of an emperor in a city of the realm. The Eastern Church usurped the ideas, the names, and the feasts, and later exported it into the Western Church. Which proves that there is obviously only one true church of god.

Saint Matthew’s is the only Evangelist mentioning the Magi at all. He doesn't tell us how many there were, much less their names. In time, three (one for each gift) were sent on the way by story tellers, and they started more than one adventurous journey. One journey brought them from somewhere East to possibly Bethlehem. Another journey was undertaken by their dead bodies, but that is another story linked to Saint Helena. A journey in fiction writing is their evolution from Magi to Kings. This evolution started in the 3rd century with a sideline by a commentator of the bible who supposed them to be dressed like kings.

From there, it was a short step for the Magi to become Kings. In one story, they became the metaphor for man’s ages, with an old, a middle aged, and a youthful king. In the medieval world, they came to represent the three (known) continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. And they acquired names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. At some point or other, they were made saints as well.

The name Epiphany got all but lost in Continental Europe as it was renamed the Day of the Three Kings. The kings ride into the towns of Italy and Southern Switzerland on the evening of the 5th of January every year together with the witch Befana. In the village of Bigorio in the Capriasca Valley, the children await the arrival of the cavalcade to lead them to the nearby monastery of the Capuchin monks. There, the villagers and the children are treated with food and hot drinks before a late mass is being read in the little chapel.

North of the Alps that day, people start the day on the 6th of January eating a Three Kings’ Cake. The cake is made of sweet bread formed into a crown with a plastic figure or a coin hidden in one of the pieces. The person finding the hidden plastic in his piece is crowned king for the day. This tradition is quite recent, starting only after World War II. What Saint Nicolas and Saint Befana could do for the toy and sweets industry, the three saintly kings could do for the bakers, obviously, not to mention the awesome power of Saint Valentine.

The cake tradition has spread to other countries, like Spain and Mexico. The Spanish bakers have added a further feature to the cake; beside the plastic figure there is also a bean hidden in the cake. The person who gets the bean has to pay for the cake.

In the German speaking parts of Europe, the Star Singers are also out and about on this day. Usually dressed as kings, the singers go from house to house carrying a star formed lantern. In houses where they are let in, they sing or pray and mark the entrance with the three letters CMB (Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar; reads as ‘Christus Mansionem Benedicat’ may Christ bless this house, too). For their trouble, they receive gifts of money which is collected for the poor of the parish.

Further reading
Cologne Cathedral: The Shrine of The Magi
Saint Befana's Day: Gifts From The Witch
Saint Helena, Empress of Rome