Epiphany is a holiday to celebrate the visit of the Magi (three kings or wise men) to Jesus. According to Christian belief, the Magi followed a bright star shining in the sky to Bethlehem and brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the Christian traditions of western Europe, Epiphany generally marks the end of the 12-day Christmas period that started on December 25. Christians observe this holiday worldwide.
The Christmas season in Germany is officially over on January 6th, after
Dreikönigstag. It is worthwhile mentioning here, that the 6th of January is not an arbitrary date for ending the season, nor is such ending solely based upon the
Fest of the Drei-Könige, In pre-christian Germanic times the tribes observed - not always without fear - the
12 hilligen Nächte which loosely translates into the
12 well-lit nights when all kinds of spirits or demons roamed the world and rode the skies. This was a time of strict observance of certain tabus, and mainly much fear. Later on, when the Christian area began, these old superstitions were still so strong that they were ankered at that time in Christian traditions, and as you can see, are still a part of Christmas season and the duration thereof. An ardent student of customs of our world and its people will probably soon discover, that there are many more such coincidences, if that is the right word to use.
It was not just the Germanic peoples though who celebrated the day of the invincible Sun God. The Romans also marked the day when the God started to direct his chariot northwards again, and the days became longer. On that depended the date laid down for the start of the New Year, which was different in the old Julian calendar to today's Gregorian system. When the latter was introduced in 1582, ten days had to be made good. A Papal decree stated that the 5th of October 1582 should be followed by the 15th of October. The Reformation had, however, long since swept through Europe, and Protestant states were not ready to accept Rome's decision just like that. England only introduced the new calendar in 1752, extensive areas of Germany in 1776, and Russia as late as 1918.
The well-known differences in important dates around Christmas result from that. In all the Eastern churches, the 6th of January, Epiphany, is still viewed as the most important day in this festive season, uniting the adoration of the Three Kings and the start of the New Year. All German Protestants from what is now the GDR and Poland still of one accord refer to
The High New Year instead of Epiphany. The actual New Year's Day would be of little significance for Christians were it not for the festivity on the previous day named after Pope Silvester I. The Day of Lights, the 13th of December, constituted a very important date according to the old calendar but today it is only a Nordic festival. All that remains in Germany is a bit of country lore about the days becoming longer after the Day of Lights. Under the Julian calendar, December the 13th entailed the longest night and the shortest day. That now happens on Thomas's Day, the 21st of December.
For Educational Purposes Only.
On the 6th of January the crib scene can finally be completed. We can put out the figurines of the 3 Wise Men of the Orient. The 6th of January is the feast of the 3 Wise men.
Celebrated as a religious holiday in Southern Germany, Epiphany has experienced a resurgence of popularity over the last 25 years. In 1959, the Catholic Church officially reintroduced the custom of the
Sternsinger (star singers). On January 6, groups of young people and children dressed in colorful garments go from door to door and ask for donations for the poor. Several of them carry a star. The three kings are represented as well with crowns of cardboard and gold paper. Both boys and girls participate. They sing the traditional songs and inscribe the initials "CMB" surrounded by 1985 on the door frame. The three letters are generally thought to stand for the names of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. In reality they indicate
Christus Mansionem Benedicat (Christ Bless this Home). The blessing is believed to ensure protection for the coming year.
The Day of the Magi marks the end of a 12-day period which played an important role in the popular beliefs of former times. Various kinds of spirits were believed to haunt the country during the twelve nights (twelfth-tide) between Christmas and January 6, and people engaged in all sorts of practices in order to protect themselves. Also, it was believed that from the weather on these twelve days one could foretell what the weather for the coming twelve months would be like.
The Three Wise Men
On the Twelfth night which is January 6, children dress up as the Three Wise Men: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. These men were kings who lived at the time of Jesus' birth. According to the New Testament, they followed a star in the sky that led them to the baby Jesus where they gave him gifts. In Germany, children carry a star on a stick and go from house to house in groups of three singing carols, collecting charity for the poor, and receiving candy. When leaving a house, the children write the year and the initials C+M+B for the three kings, over the doorway with chalk to protect the house against bad luck.
For Educational Purposes Only.