“Three Kings Day” does not conjure up a warm and fuzzy feeling for most Americans as it is not a holiday commonly celebrated in the United States. In Europe, however, January 6, which in English is generally referred to as “Epiphany,” is honored in various forms as a part of the Christian Christmas calendar. It is the twelfth day after the birth of Christ and the day on which the Magi arrived at the manger in Bethlehem. As a Christian holiday, “Dreikönigstag” is an amalgam of various elements adopted at different times in Christian history. In the Bible, Matthew is the only apostle to report on the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem. Interestingly, he never mentions a specific number of kings, but simply refers to them as “Magi from the east” (Matthew 2:1). The fact that there were three of them is conjecture based on the number of gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some time between the 6th and 9th century, the three Wise Men, rather randomly, received names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. About five centuries later, during the Spanish Crusades, the idea was born that Caspar was a Moor and thus nativity scenes in Europe, to this day, depict him as a black king. The story of the three Magi is of particular significance to Germany because a magnificent golden shrine purportedly containing the remains of the three kings has been housed in the cathedral of Cologne since 1164. The story of how they got there is rather convoluted and unproven,but interesting nonetheless:
At some point, the three Wise Men became intermingled with the ancient pagan custom of writing protective spells onto the door frames of houses. In the 16th century, “Sternsinger” became a popular Catholic tradition. Reenacting the Magi’s journey towards the star that shone in the east, they carried crowns, frankincense, and a star from door to door, singing songs or reciting poems or prayers at each house. They also wrote the letters C + M + B, followed by the year, with consecrated chalk onto the door frame of each house to protect the house and its inhabitants from evil. In return, the “star singers” received gifts from the homeowners. Some sources claim that the letters have always stood for Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, but others assert that the letters originally stood for the Latin “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” (Christ Bless This House). Either way, in the public perception, the custom became firmly associated with the three Wise Men Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. For a while, the “star singer” custom disappeared into obscurity, but it was resurrected by the Catholic church about 50 years ago with a slightly different purpose. Nowadays, the “star singers” perform the same “services,” singing and blessing the houses with chalk, but they do so for charitable donations rather than for their own benefit.
“Dreikönigstag” is an official holiday in a few German states and in Austria, but observance and traditions vary considerably by region. In Switzerland, in parts of Austria, as well as in France and Spain, the three Wise Men are commemorated with a special type of bread. In Switzerland, it is a sweet yeast bread that consists of a large round loaf surrounded by six smaller round loaves. Originally, families baked their own “three kings bread”, but in modern times, people prefer to purchase the bread, complete with paper crown, from a bakery. One of the small loaves hides a tiny plastic figure of a king and whoever is fortunate enough to find the plastic king in his or her piece of bread gets to be king” or “queen” for the day. In most cases, the “royal” powers entail not having to do one’s chores for the day and being able to delegate them to one’s siblings instead. As a result, Swiss children, unlike their American counterparts, do get a warm and fuzzy feeling when they think about “Dreikönigstag.”
Interesting site on religious customs in Germany: http://www.brauchtum.de/fruehjahr/dreikoenige_1.html.
Various videos of “Sternsinger” are available on youtube.