For centuries church calendars in the East and the West have agreed that there are twelve days of Christmas and they begin on Christmas Day and end on January 6.
The twelve days of Christmas end with the Feast of Epiphany also called "The Adoration of the Magi" or "The Manifestation of God." Celebrated on January 6, it is known as the day of the Three Kings (or wise men/magi): Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. According to an old legend based on a Bible story, these three kings saw, on the night when Christ was born, a bright star, followed it to Bethlehem and found there the Christ-Child and presented it with gold, frankincense and myrrh.
January 6, the last day of Christmas, comes with it’s own traditions, rituals and symbols. Carolers are going from house to house; in many homes the Christmas tree is taken down and in some areas is burnt in a big bonfire. For the children this is an especially joyous occasion because, associated with taking down the tree goes the "plündern" (raiding) of the tree. The sweets, chocolate ornaments wrapped in foil or cookies, which have replaced the sugar plums, are the raiders' rewards.
The history of Christmas, (the festival of the nativity of Jesus Christ,) is intertwined with that of the Epiphany. The commemoration of the Baptism (also called the Day of Lights, i.e. the Illumination of Jesus) was also known as the birthday of Jesus, because he was believed to have been born then of the Virgin or reborn in baptism. In some records Christmas and Epiphany were referred to as the first and second nativity; the second being Christ's manifestation to the world.
In the fourth century, December 25 was finally adopted by the Western Christian Church as the date of the Feast of Christ's birth. It is believed that this change in date gave rise to the tradition of the "12 Days of Christmas." While the Western Christian Church celebrates December 25th, the Eastern Christian Church to this day recognizes January 6 as the celebration of the nativity. January 6 was also kept as the physical birthday in Bethlehem. In the Teutonic west, Epiphany became the Festival of the Three Kings (i.e. the Magi), or simply Twelfth day.
On the evening before Three Kings, traditionally there were prayers, blessed dried herbs would be burnt and their aromatic smell would fill the house. Doorways would be sprinkled with holy water and the master of the house would write with chalk C + M + B and the year above the house and barn door and say: "Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, behütet uns auch für dieses Jahr, vor Feuer und vor Wassergefahr." ("CMB, protect us again this year from the dangers of fire and water.") C + M + B has traditionally been translated with Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, however, according to the Church it stands for "Christus Mansionem Benedictat" (Christ bless this home).
The custom of the Star Singers, reminiscent of the travel of the Three Kings is still very much alive in Bavaria and Austria. Beginning with New Years and through January 6, children dressed as the kings, and holding up a large star, go from door to door, caroling and singing a Three Kings' song. For this they receive money or sweets. Formerly the collected donations went to unemployed craftsmen and veterans; today they go to a local Charities.
In the city of New Orleans, the Mardi Gras season begins on January 6th, also known to Christians as "Epiphany". As a symbol of the Holy Day of Epiphany, a tiny plastic baby is included with each King Cake. Place the baby inside of your King Cake, the person who gets the piece with the baby is traditionally supposed to supply the next King Cake.
The King Cake tradition is thought to have been brought to New Orleans from France in 1870. A King Cake is an oval shaped bakery delicacy that is rich in both flavor and history. The King Cake is decorated in the three Mardi Gras colors that have certain historical and symbolic significance. Purple symbolizes "Justice", Green stands for "Faith", and Gold for "Power". These colors were to resemble a jeweled crown honoring the Wise Men who visited the Christ Child on Epiphany. In the past such things as coins, beans, pecans and peas were hidden inside of the King’s Cake. Today, a small plastic baby is usually the prize. At a party the cake is sliced and served and each person looks to see if their piece contains the "baby". A chant of "I’ve got the baby!" means that that person is obligated to supply the next cake. In recent years legal liabilities have forced many bakeries to refrain from baking the baby inside of the cake.
· More on January 6 as the original Christmas date and C + M + B. In English.
· An Internet Hotlist on Three Kings Day-Epiphany, is a holiday celebrated throughout the Hispanic world
· Home Page of the Sternsinger- Kindermissionswerk. in German
· Dreikönig: description and video clip: Glöcklerlauf im Salzkammergut am Vorabend zu Dreikönig, Oberösterreich.
· Video Clip: Sternsinger in Wien, um 1935. Österreich-Lexikon.
· Sternsinger und die drei Weisen. Engelchens Weihachtsmarkt.
· The excellent Epiphany and Three Kings page from Graf Zeppelin Gymnasium.
· Short description of the Sternsinger in English and German
· Three Kings Cake.Recipe from the German Information Center.
· Miscellaneous : Volksbräuche, 3 Könige als Schutzpatrone, Dreikönigstreffen.
· Epiphany and the Three Wise Men. Page from Canada in English.
· Bavaran Epiphany tradition and a humorous take on C+M+B.
· Origins of Christmas music. Conduct searches for "Caroling" and "Christmas Music"
· More on Church Calendars and Holidays in Germany.
· Coellen: Reliquien der Heiligen Drei Könige und das Kölner Stadtwappen.
· 750 Jahre Kölner Dom: InterNationes - Landeskunde Online. Dreikönigstag, Lesetexte, Übungen.
· Russian Christmas (Epiphany): InterNationes - from BethanyRose aged 7, United States, Dec 97 .
· Bibliography on the Three Kings and Volkstümliche Reliquienverehrung.