Epiphany: 3 things to know about the Three Kings Festival
“We three kings of Orient are … bearing gifts we traverse afar … field and fountain, moor and mountain … following yonder star,” begins the popular Christmas carol. On Jan. 6, the countries of Austria, Germany and Switzerland honor the trek of the Magi detailed in the song’s lyrics with a religious feast day known as Epiphany, or the Three Kings Festival (das Dreikönigsfest). If you are stationed in Europe, there are three things you should know about this special day.
1. Epiphany marks the official end of the Christmas season.
For Austria, along with the German states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Saxony-Anhalt, three Swiss cantons (or districts) and part of Graubünden, Jan. 6 is considered a public holiday. Plan ahead to avoid any kinks this may cause in your daily responsibilities and travel itineraries. Recognized as the day Magi arrived in Bethlehem with gifts to present to the Christ child after their long journey from the Orient, it is also considered the last day of the holiday season. If you’ve been putting off the tedious task of taking down your Christmas décor, now is the time to finally get it done.
2. Star Singers, or Sternsinger, may come calling.
From Dec. 27 to Jan. 6, small groups of children known as Star Singers (Sternsinger) dress up as the three wise men to raise funds for special charities. Following a leader who carries a star, they go from door to door, singing hymns about the Magi and the birth of baby Jesus in exchange for a few coins.
3. Houses are blessed and cleansed.
Sternsinger and representatives from religious organizations also stop by to offer blessings for the new year. It’s common to see a cryptic series of letters, numbers and symbols written on villagers’ doors. Marked with chalk that has been blessed by a Catholic priest, this inscription has usually been sanctioned by a local church.
How to decipher the symbol: Beginning and ending with the first and last pair of digits of the new year, 2017’s blessing will read: 20*C+M+B+17
The asterisk (*) symbolizes the star of Bethlehem the Magi followed to find baby Jesus. The three crosses (+) stand for the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit. Finally, the C, M and B are said to either represent the names of the three wise men (die Weisen), whose German monikers are Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, or “Christus mansionem benedicat,” which means “Christ bless this house.”
In addition to the chalk blessings inscribed on doors, it is common for frankincense to be burned in rooms to cleanse village dwellings for the next 12 months.
Keep an eye out for Epiphany customs around Europe on Jan. 6. It is another great opportunity to learn something new about our host nations.