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Three Kings Day, Epiphany in Germany

January 6 is Epiphany, the day following Twelfth Night, and it has been a Christian feast since the third century A.D., which is before a "Christmas" holiday was created. Now it's Dreikoenigstag, "Three Kings Day", and honors the "Heilige Drei Könige"; the Magi or Three Wise Men.

It is the culmination of Germany’s Advent Weihnachten season, and end to Christmas celebrations, with its own traditions that range from religion and charity to folklore and pagan.

Some customs can be traced to Raunächte, "Rough Nights"; rituals pagan Germanic tribes followed "Zwischen den Jahren". Beginning with the first at winter solstice, December 21-22, and continuing until the final night, January 5-6, and that includes everything from fires and loud continuous noise to wild, chaotic behavior by strange looking, make that ugly and frightening, "Spirits".

In three German states, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Saxony-Anhalt, Epiphany is a public holiday, while church services are held throughout the country. Figures representing the Heilige Drei Könige, The Three Kings "Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar", are added to the Weihnachten nativity scene tableaux to commemorate their visit to the Christ Child.

They were the first "Gentiles", at the time the description used for non-Jewish, to acknowledge him as a "King".

There is an affinity to the "Magi" in Germany, as it is believed relics of these "Wise Men", sometimes described as astrologers or astronomers, have been in Cologne, lying in a specially designed gold and silver decorated shrine, since 1225.

The relics, bones from three men of differing ages together with fabric bandages and resin, were presented to the city of Cologne in 1164 and, although it took 632 years before it was finished, the reason the construction of Cologne cathedral began in 1248 was to house them, and their sarcophagus.

Although the shrine did have to be rescued from French troops in 1794, and kept in safety for nine years in Arnsberg, Sauerland, which is also in Nordrhein Westfalen.

As a part of the cathedral's completion celebrations in the 19th century, King Ludwig I of Bavaria donated a set of stunning Bavarian stained glass windows featuring the Holy Family together with The Three Kings.

Sternsinger, "Star Singers", groups of three children dressed as the oriental Three Kings, and with "Balthasar" carrying a large glowing five pointed star, go door to door during the twelve days of Christmas between December 25 and January 6; particularly in Catholic areas. After singing for the occupants they leave a blessing to protect "House and Home" for the coming year; using white chalk that has been blessed in church they write on door beams, or 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.

2017 is written as "20*C+M+B+17", with the crosses representing Christ, and although these letters are usually understood to represent the initials of the Three Kings, CMB also stands for a Latin phrase; "Christus mansionem benedicat".

May Christ bless this home.

Money given the singers for their singing and the "blessing" is donated to charities, especially those helping disadvantaged children, while any cookies and candies are theirs to keep.

Every year the Catholic Church in Germany suggests a particular theme and slogan for the "Sternsinger", and about a half a million young German people take part. They collect for Die Sternsinger, a "children helping children" organization that first originated in 19th century France, and was quickly adopted and publicized by 15 year old Auguste von Sartoriusa, from Aachen, Germany.

The idea was to help abandoned babies and children in China, but since the 1950's it has 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 that 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 Dreikönigskuchen, Three Kings Cake. A baked good traditionally divided by the number of people present plus one. That extra slice symbolically left for those who cannot be there for whatever reason. In former times this was given to any "poor" person who was seen out and about, or 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.

In some families whoever wins the crown will be excused chores for the next days, and that, for most children, is a far more exciting prospect than wearing a ornamental cardboard crown for a few hours.

But it is also 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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Perchten in Lammertal via tennengau.com - 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 door, own photo - Dreikongskuchen thanks to Schweizer Illustrierte

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