Everyone is familiar with the Twelve Days of Christmas. It’s a funny song where the gift-giver gives strange gifts of “lords a leaping”, and various birds, including turtledoves and a “partridge in a pear tree.” (Really, who would want all those birds?) With the 12 days of Christmas, it seems the gifts are given the 12 days before Christmas. The Bible tells us of the first gifts given in celebration of Christ’s birth by the Wise Men, and one tradition holds that the Wise Men visited 12 days after Christ’s birth. January 6 is celebrated in some parts of the world as 3 Kings Day.
I talked previously about the Wise Men and their part in the Christmas Story. Not much is known about them, but there are quite a few interesting legends. For example, we assume there are 3 Wise Men, but some ancient paintings show as few as two, and sometimes as many as four. Names and legends have even sprung up to provide more information about these men.
In the Greek church, Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior and Balthasar are their names. Some artists have shown them to represent all of humanity: its youth, middle age, and elderly. In the Renaissance, other artists sought to make the magi represent race, color and creed. In one painting, one of the Magi is represented as coming from Ethiopia and was black. The others came from Persia and India.
Syrian Christians have a 6th century tale naming them Horamistar, King of Persia; Yestigat King of Saba; and Perozad, king of Sheba. Wikipedia lists some other names and legends, and has some footnotes to provide some sources to these legends.
According to this video, in the Spanish world, presents are not exchanged on Christmas, but 12 days later on 3 Kings Day, January 6. Presents under the tree are left by the 3 Kings, not Santa Claus. A special cake is prepared, representing good luck for the next year. The one who finds a ring cooked into the cake gets the good luck.
Marco Polo in the 13th century, claimed that he was shown the three tombs of the Magi at Saveh south of Tehran in the 1270s:
“In Persia is the city of Saba, from which the Three Magi set out and in this city they are buried, in three very large and beautiful monuments, side by side. And above them there is a square building, beautifully kept. The bodies are still entire, with hair and beard remaining.”
Another legend says their bones were allegedly removed by Helena, mother of Constantine, who was looking for Christian artifacts in the 4th century. She took them to Byzantium, and the bones have been moved a few times, finally ending up in Cologne, where they are today, sealed in a golden coffin in a cathedral.
So, can anyone verify that the Spanish celebrate 3 Kings Day? It sounds like a very interesting tradition to me. I really like the cake idea. About 3 years ago, I was trying to explain to my then 4 year old that Christmas was more than just Santa Claus. I told him that it was Jesus’ birthday. My boy exclaimed, “We should make him a cake!”
As I thought of this 3 Kings Day tradition, I thought that might be an interesting addition to the holidays. Perhaps we should all celebrate 3 Kings Day. Perhaps we could save some money on the post-Christmas sales if we waited to buy presents after Christmas. What do you think? I like the idea of 3 Kings Day better than giving birds to my love (and I think she wouldn’t know what to do with all the birds either.)
The legend of Prester John is also associated with the Magi. It was told that he was directly descended from one of them. They were thought to be sorcerers by some and the word Magic is derived from Magi.
My 15 year old son’s mother is hispanic and yes they celebrate 3 kings day and yes that side of his family gives the “best” gifts on that day rather than Christmas. Although they do a gift exchange on Christmas as well.
In his spanish class last year at school they put alot of emphasis on that 3 kings day tradition which I thought was strange…maybe the “war” on Christmas that the far-right is always yapping about forgot to invade the beachhead of 3 kings day…LOL 😉
Where do you get that from? The twelve days of Christmas start at Christmas and extend to Epiphany. I’ll point you to Wikipedia as my reference, but I’ll add that I’ve never heard of the tradition any other way.
perhaps it is a utah tradition. when I was on my mission, my mom sent me 1 gift everyday the 12 days preceeding christmas. last year, my wife did the same with a less active sister she was visiting teaching in the ward. in utah, it seems to me that on dec 26, everyone’s attention turns to new year’s resolutions, the bcs bowls, and everyone is tired of talking about christmas because it is so commercial prior to christmas. we have no tradition of 3 kings day, but I think it is a tradition I would like to adopt. I mentioned it to my wife, but she was not receptive. as a utah county mormon, I think she probably represents utah mormon thought better than a heretic like me.
I have often wondered how many Wise Men actually visited the Child. Two, three, five, more??? Interesting how traditions evolve from limited information. i.e. three gifts.
AS for when they came, I am inclined towards something over a year, perhaps nearer to two years after the Nativity. Why would Herod kill two year old children if the Babe was only a newborn, except to make sure the Child was included among the slaughtered. Thus, an older child makes more sense.
Also, how long after the star appeared, did it take the Wise Men to consult with one another via “Camel Express”, to gather*, and to travel to Jerusalem. “Kings”, of the status of ones who would be welcomed to the court of Herod, would not simply grab the nearest camel, or horse, and dash off to Jerusalem. They would travel with an entourage, which would take time to prepare. And how far away did they live?
Mathew 2:11 states the wise men “…were come into the house….” ,not the stable, so Joseph had time to find a new residence. Perhaps he was successful soon after the birth, but, did he have to wait for a vacancy after the tax-paying crowds dispersed?
*Assuming they were not immediate neighbors.
It will be fun to learn the whole story in time.
The Other Wise Man is a great story that adds to the Christmas Spirit. Find it here:
Several years ago my daughter (who had just finished up a BYU semester abroad) and I spent the month of January backpacking through Europe. We happened to be in Rome on January 6th. We were so surprised to discover that the Italians celebrate this day, Epiphany or Three Kings Day, in a very big way. The streets of Rome were filled with people that day, mostly families with children, because it is the day for gifts to children. The largest piaza was full of booths selling toys and sweet treats. There were clowns and other street performers doing tricks. It was truly amazing and such a fun day for us to be there. There were very few tourists (who goes to Rome in January?), so we felt like special guests and were treated as such by the people we met. I don’t know how that day is celebrated in other European countries, but we were delighted to find that all over Europe the churches keep their Christmas Nativity displays up through the month of January. It was like a whole month of Christmas for us.
i’m trying to start my own tradition of celebrating the 12 days of christmas.
the past few years my children have opened small gifts on each day from christmas to jan 5th
i wish there were some stories i could read to them each day about the events that might have happened around the birth of jesus. i’m just trying to put more jesus in christmas than santa. any ideas ?
I know this post is a few years old, but I like the idea of 3 Kings Day. I grew up in Southern California and so we had a lot of Hispanic friends and they did the cake thing! I don’t know why I haven’t thought about it before. I have been thinking an awful lot about how to bring Christ back into the Christmas celebration and take a little more of Santa Claus (Or Saint Nicholas) out. But as I have 4 young children that is a little harder than I thought.
Hi Leetah, Hope you’ll report on how it goes if you do this!
We just did a new podcast on Christmas and the birth narratives, wise men, etc., that is most excellent. There we talk a bit about the twelve days and Jan 6th as Epihany (the revelation of Jesus to outsiders when the magi show up–whether twelve days or a year or more and twelve days after since some accounts have Jesus as a toddler by the time of their visit) rather than 3 Kings Day. Anyway, if you’re in the mood, here’s a link to the podcast.
Host, Mormon Matters