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The Three Wise Kings: origin, meaning and traditions

Those who study the history of the Three Kings will soon realize that these are mainly religious myths, sagas and legends handed down. The Catholic Church venerates the "Three Kings" as saints and celebrates them with the feast of the Apparition of the Lord on January 6. Who were these wise men of the East and what are the traditions around the Epiphany or the feast of the Three Kings?

Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar: Who were the three wise kings?

The actual existence of the three wise men of the East could never be proven. Therefore, the attempt to explain them is subject to many interpretations, suppositions and conjectures. It is certain that the Three Wise Men in a crib are popular Nativity figures.

Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar have gone down in history as the Three Kings. They are an essential part of every Nativity set and are among the most significant figures.

Nativity set
Nativity figures set

The three men came from the so-called East, now from the Middle East. Their costume, described as oriental, indicates that they came from Persia. There, the sages were probably astrologists. In this function they observed the rise of a new celestial star at Christmas time.

This star appeared in the sky with a bright tail and, according to modern scientific studies, probably was not a comet, but a close encounter of the two planets Jupiter and Saturn. Other interpretations describe sages as wizards and sorcerers who had a belief in the supernatural, or as alchemists and therefore as healers.

Many legends intertwine around the lives of the three men, whose appearance is usually described as quite rich. One of them says that each of them was named bishop from Apostle Thomas. In addition, they are said to have worked as successful missionaries and died one after the other.

According to another legend, the Magi were buried in a common tomb, which is said to have been found by St. Helena in 326. In July 1164 the bones arrived in the Cathedral of Cologne, where since then they rest and are venerated as relics in the sanctuary of the Magi.

The three wise men: the meaning of names

The name Gaspar comes from Persian and means something like "treasure keeper" or "treasurer". Gaspar is often depicted in images as an African with dark skin color and presents myrrh as a gift. Myrrh is a symbol for humanity and is in some interpretations also associated with the later suffering of Jesus.

Melchiorre is a Jewish name and stands for "King of Light". He has European characteristics and brings gold as a gift. Gold is considered the most precious commodity worthy of a king, the Son of God.

The name Balthasar also comes from Hebrew and means "God save his life" or "God will help"". Translations of the name from Ancient Syrian also read "God save the king. It is associated with an Asian origin. He carries incense, which is considered a divine symbol.

History or origin of the Epiphany

Geschichte des DreikönigsfestsThe wise men of the East came to the manger to pay homage to the newborn king.

The history of the Three Kings probably has its origin in the Gospel of Matthew. There you can read that wise men, magicians and astrologers came from the East to pay homage to the newborn king by visiting him. Like the shepherds, they followed the shining star that had just risen in the sky, which led them to the manger in the stable of the Holy Family. The star had led them to a special birth the birth of Jesus.

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As members of the upper class, they were held in high regard and were able to present the child gold, incense and myrrh. By the way, Matthew did not mention the number of men. The number three was only later derived from the number of gifts. He did not even call them king and did not call them by name. This custom has only existed since the 8th century. Much more important than the current history of the Three Holy Kings seems to be their symbolic meaning.

The symbolism: why 3 Kings?

In many cultures the number three was considered sacred and marked the divine constellations in religion and myth. Examples are the Christian Trinity, the Roman triad of Juno, Jupiter and Minerva, the Egyptian trinity of Horus, Isis and Osiris, and the division of the world into heaven, earth and hell. The Indian philosophy of religion knows being, thinking and bliss. The three also play an important role in fairy tales and idioms. One thinks here of "having three free desires", "three brothers", "in three diabolical names" or "of all good things are three".

But let us return to the Three Kings, who are associated with the three phases of life - youth, adulthood and old age - as well as the three biblical "races" of the Chamites, Semites and Japhets as descendants of the sons of Noah. Moreover, the three wise men were already assigned to the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe around 700, which is reflected, for example, in the pictorial representations of icons.

Die Zahl Drei bei den Heiligen Drei Königen hat symbolische BedeutungWhy exactly three Kings? The number three has a symbolic meaning

If we look at the encounter between shepherds, sages, ox and donkey, it is striking that the interpretations that have developed over many centuries are similar in one respect: everyone says that the shepherds and the ox stand for the Jews, and the sages and the donkey symbolize the Gentiles . All together, however, they stand in the stable, devoted and full of peace, to pay homage to the Messiah incarnate. In light of many of today's religious wars and the struggles of the shaken crisis zones, we can therefore assume that this moment in the stable in Bethlehem was the most peaceful on earth. And in this sense it is a great symbol of humanity's hope, whatever its faith.

At that time, even as travelers on their way to Bethlehem, the Magi are still considered the patron saints of all travelers, innkeepers and pilgrims. They were never officially "canonized". Moreover, the initial letters of their names written on the front doors and on the walls of the stables should help to protect their buildings and their inhabitants from damage.

The gifts of gold, myrrh and incense given to the Child Jesus also have a certain symbolism, as mentioned above. For example, gold is interpreted as a gift worthy of a king. Myrrh is considered a medicinal plant and therefore a suitable gift for a healer. And incense is the appropriate gift for a priest.

Three Wise Men's Day: Habits and customs, tradition and peculiarities

The Magi Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar have a long tradition in the church and are still celebrated today. Discover here below everything about customs and peculiarities.

The Three Kings Games

The custom of the games of the Three Kings follows the ancient traditions of the year 378, when it is said that the Saint Mary communicated with the three kings in the form of a sung dialogue. Whether this actually happened is very controversial. What is not disputed, however, is the origin of a constantly evolving storyteller who enjoyed great popularity, especially during the 15th century. Some even say that the Game of the Three Kings Singers laid the foundation for the subsequent tradition of choral singing.

Carol's songs

The first singers went from door to door in the 16th century. Accompanied by their teacher, schoolchildren knocked on house doors to sing the story of Jesus Christ. To the people who live in them. Later they blessed the house with a cross painted on the door. As thanks, the children received small prizes in the form of nuts and apples.

Even today, about 500,000 girls and boys go from door to door during the annual Christmas carols event. They dress up as Epiphany and collect donations for needy children around the world under the motto "Children help children". Every year the money collected goes to a different organization. Even the custom of blessing the househas remained

To do this, the singers write the respective year on the door, in the middle of which they insert the letters C, M and B. These three letters stand on one side for the Latin "Christus mansionem benedicat", which in the translation means "Christ bless this house". On the other hand, it seems obvious to associate these letters with the first letters of the three royal names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. However, it is said that the special combination of letters and numbers has a certain protective effect and keeps evil away from the corresponding houses.

The Epiphany

By the way, the three letters C, M and B were also written on parchment, tanned animal skins or papyrus in the Middle Ages. In this way, travelers and pilgrims can always carry the protective blessing.

Islands of Epiphany

On January 6, 1643, Dutch sailor Abel Tasman discovered a group of islands in the Tasman Sea in northwest New Zealand, which he named the Islands of the Three Kings in honor of the feast.

Epiphany cake

Dreikönigskuchen als Festtagsgebäck am Feiertag Heilige Drei KönigeThe Dreikönigskuchen is a popular sweet cake made for the Ephiphany day.

The Epiphany cake, known in England as "King's Cake", in France as "Galette des Rois" and in Spain as "Roscón de Reyes", is a traditional festive cake prepared only for January 6. Although the recipes are very different, all cakes have one thing in common. In fact, a good luck charm in the shape of almond, coin, bean or porcelain figure is baked into the cake, making the person who finds it a family king for a day. It is an old custom also widespread in the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Information about the feast of the Epiphany

The 6th January is considered the day when the Magi, led by a star, arrived at the stable in Bethlehem. It is the day of Jesus' revealed divinity, the "Apparition of the Lord". A religious festival, celebrated as "Epiphany" in the Protestant, Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Churches. By the way, the name "Day of the Three Kings" or "Epiphany" has been in use only since the 4th century. Thus, the oldest traditions found of this festival date back to the year 336.

According to the royal gifts that were presented to the baby Jesus, in some European countries the "family celebration with gifts" takes place only on this day. This custom is common in Spain and Russia, for example. In Germany, however, the Epiphany is also the end of the Christmas period. Many families take their Christmas tree down after 6 January.

Among the European countries where January 6 is a national holiday are Andorra, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Croatia, Liechtenstein, Austria, Poland, Sweden, Slovakia, Spain and Cyprus. In Germany, however, Epiphany is celebrated only in the federal countries of Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and Saxony-Anhalt. The situation is similar in Switzerland, where January 6 is accepted as a holiday only in some areas of Graubünden and in the cantons of Schwyz, Ticino and Uri.

FAQ: The most important facts about the Three Kings in brief

Why are we celebrating the three wise men?

The Catholic feast of Epiphany commemorates the veneration of the Child Jesus by the Magi Gasparre, Melchiorre and Baldassarre. According to tradition, they came to the stable immediately after the birth of Jesus Christ to worship the new king of the world.

What is the name of the feast of the Magi?

The feast of the Three Kings is also called Epiphany.

Why are the Magi saints?

The Catholic Church venerates the "three kings" as saints. Their feast is the Epiphany, on January 6.

Epiphany: What does the abbreviation CMB mean?

The abbreviation C M B stands for "Christus mansionem benedicat", which translated means: "Christ bless this house". On the other hand, the initials are also associated with the first letters of the Three Kings Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

What are the names of the three kings?

The names of the three kings are Gasparre, Melchior and Balthasar.

Where is the Epiphany considered festive?

The Feast of the Three Kings is a holiday in Germany in Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and Saxony-Anhalt.

In which part of the world is January 6 a vacation?

Epiphany is a national holiday in various European countries. These countries include Andorra, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Croatia, Liechtenstein, Austria, Poland, Sweden, Spain, Slovakia and Cyprus.

What is the typical custom of Epiphany?

On Epiphany day different traditions are maintained. During the singing event, children dressed as Epiphany go from house to house to commemorate the festive event. In some countries an Epiphany cake is also prepared, in which a good luck charm is hidden.

Where are the relics of the Three Kings?

It is said that the bones of the three Magi are kept in a sanctuary in the cathedral of Cologne. Many faithful come to the church to remember Gasparre, Melchior and Balthazar.

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