Epiphany on January 6th was recognized as the day after ‘Twelfth Night’ and a Christian feast from the third century AD, before the 'Christmas' holiday was created. Now as Germany’s Dreikoenigstag, Three Kings Day, it has its own traditions and customs marking the culmination of Germany’s Advent Weihnachten season, and the ending of Christmas celebrations.
For three German states, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria and Saxony-Anhalt, Epiphany is a public holiday, and throughout the country church services are held with figures representing the Heilige Drei Koenige, The Three Kings, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, added to the nativity scene tableaux to commemorate their visit to the Christ Child.
They were the first Gentiles, at the time a description for non-Jewish, to acknowledge him as a "King".
There is an affinity to the Magi in Germany as it is believed the relics of these "Wise Men", sometimes described as astrologers or astronomers, have been lying in a specially designed gold and silver decorated shrine in Cologne since in 1225.
The relics, mostly bones from three men of differing ages together with fabric bandages and resin, had been presented initially to the city of Cologne in 1164 and, although it took 632 years before it was finished, it was to house them and their sarcophagus that construction of Cologne cathedral began in 1248.
While in the 19th century King Ludwig I of Bavaria donated beautiful Bavarian stained glass windows featuring the Holy Family together with The Three Kings, part of the celebrations for the cathedral's completion.
Sternsinger, "Star Singers", groups of three children dressed as the oriental Three Kings with Balthasar carrying a large glowing five pointed star, go door to door during the twelve Christmas days between December 25 and January 6, particularly in Catholic areas. After singing for the occupants they leave them a blessing to protect "house and home" for the coming year, and using white chalk write on door beams, or on the actual doors, the date of the current year together with the initials of the names believed to be those of the Magi: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.
2014 is written as 20+C+M+B+14, with the crosses representing Christ, and although these letters are usually understood to represent the initials of the Three Kings, CBM also stands for a Latin phrase, Christus mansionem benedicat, May Christ bless this home.
Money given the singers for their singing and 'blessing' is donated to charities, especially those helping disadvantaged children, while any cookies and sweets are theirs to keep.
Every year the Catholic Church in Germany will suggest a particular theme and slogan for the "Sternsinger" and about a half a million young German people taking part. They often collect for Die Sternsinger, a "children helping children" organization, which originated in 19th century France and was quickly adopted and publicized by 15 year old Auguste von Sartoriusa who lived in Germany.
The idea was to help abandoned babies and children in China but it has now spread over the world, both as a charity and also with those it supports.
As the final day of the Christmas Festivities this is also when the Weihnachtsbaum, Christmas tree, which traditionalists will have decorated only on Christmas Eve, is taken down to be ceremonially burnt in a huge communal bonfire, put out and collected for mulching or saved for the Easter celebration bonfires. Although for any young people, or those with a "sweet tooth", the loss of the season’s magic and color will be tempered by the "pluendern", raiding, of all the candies, cookies, and foil wrapped chocolate ornaments which have been hanging from the tree's branches.
And just to add to the sugar over load as a ceremonial end to the whole Christmas season there is a Dreikoenigskuchen, Three Kings Cake. A baked good traditionally divided by the number of people present plus one, with that extra piece symbolically left for those who cannot be there for whatever reason. In former times this was then given to any poor person who was seen out and about or who came to the door.
Whoever finds a small figure of the Christ Child, or alternatively a dried white bean, hidden in their portion of Three Kings Cake can be 'King' for the day, and wear the 'crown', a golden or silver circlet placed at the center of the cake. While in some families whoever has the crown will be excused chores for the next days, which for most children is a far more exciting prospect than wearing a cardboard crown for a few hours.
As well as something of a small consolation for the fact that almost a year will pass until the end of November or first days of December, and the arrival of Advent once again bringing with it the beginning of Weihnachten celebrations.
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We have heard about the Magi bringing gifts to the Christ Child, but who they were and what brought them to Bethlehem has always been a mystery. Epiphany: The untold epic journey of the Magi is an enjoyable historical novel which is difficult to put down, and it gives us a real insight into ‘what might have been’. A 'must read' for the holiday season.
Cologne Cathedral Bavarian Window, 19th century, donated by Bavaria's Ludwig I, photographer Raymond – ©Raimond Spekking / CC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons),Blessing over the door to a monastery, photographer Papiermond, via de.Wikipedia, Dreikongskuchen thanks to Schweizer Illustrierte