If you’ve ever wondered where the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas originated . . . those who follow the Christian tradition believe it came from the story of the Three Wise Men (magi) who brought gifts to the infant Christ child.
The story of the Three Kings is told only in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 2, verses 1-12. I have reprinted the Good News Bible version below.
Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the time when Herod was king. Soon afterward, some men who studied the stars came from the East to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the baby born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star when it came up in the east and we have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard about this, he was very upset, and so was everyone else in Jerusalem. He called together all the chief priests and the teachers of the Law and asked them, “Where will the Messiah be born?”
“In the town of Bethlehem in Judea,” they answered. “For this is what the prophet wrote:
Then they returned to their country by another road, since god had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod.
‘Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
you are by no means the least of the leading cities of Judah;
for from you will come a leader
who will guide my people, Israel.'”
So Herod called the visitors from the East to a secret meeting and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem with these instructions: “Go and make a careful search for the child; and when you find him, let me know so that I, too, may go and worship him.”
And so they left, and on their way they saw the same star that they had seen in the East. When they saw it, how happy they were, what joy was theirs! It went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother, Mary, they knelt down and worshipped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him.
Celebrated on January 6th, Little Christmas (more commonly known as the Epiphany) is the traditional end of the Christmas season, falling as it does on the Twelfth Day of Christmas.
While it commemorates the visit and gifts of the Magi, the Christian feast day of the Epiphany celebrates the “shining forth” or revelation of God in human form in the person of Jesus. The three kings – Melchor, Gaspar, and Balthazar – are believed to have represented Europe, Arabia, and Africa. They allegedly arrived on horse, camel, and elephant, bringing respectively gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus.
EPIPHANY IN OTHER CULTURES
In some European cultures, the greenery put up at Christmas is taken down at Epiphany.
In Ireland, Little Christmas is also referred to as Women’s Christmas because of the tradition of Irish men taking on all the household duties for the day and giving their spouses a day off. Most women hold parties or go out to celebrate the day with their friends, sisters, mothers, aunts, etc. Bars and restaurants usually have a majority female clientele on this night. Children often buy presents for their mothers and grandmothers, and it closely resembles Mother’s Day in this respect.
The Dutch and Flemish call this day Three Kings’ Day (Drie koningen). In the Netherlands and Belgium, children proceed in costume from house to house in groups of three while singing songs commemorating the occasion, and receiving a coin or some sweets at each door.
In France, people eat a version of a king cake, which has a trinket (usually a porcelain figurine of a king) or a bean hidden inside. The tradition is that the person who finds the trinket in their cake becomes “King for a Day.”
In Portugal, the Epiphany is called day of the kings (dia los reis), during which the traditional king cake is baked and eaten.
Like the tradition of Christmas stockings elsewhere in the world, in Spain, Mexico, Argentina, and Uruguay, children (and many adults) polish and leave their shoes ready for the Kings’ presents before they go to bed on the evening of January 5th. Sweet wine, fruit, milk, and snacks are left for the Kings and their camels.
In Mexico, it is traditional for children to leave their shoes, along with a letter with toy requests for the Three Kings, near the family nativity scene or next to their beds. In some parts of northern Mexico, the shoes and letters are left under the Christmas tree. Sometimes, the shoes are filled with hay for the camels, so that the Kings will be generous with their gifts.
In Louisiana, the Epiphany is the beginning of the Mardi Gras season, during which it is customary to bake king cakes. The one who finds the doll (or bean) must provide the next king cake. The interval between Epiphany and Mardi Gras is sometimes known as “king cake season.”