Tomorrow (Tuesday) is Epiphany, sometimes called the Feast of the Three Kings. Epiphany means "to manifest" or "to show" and the Christian holiday commemorates the visitation of the Magi to the Christ child, and his manifestation to the Gentiles.
The Eastern Christians also commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, and his manifestation to the world as the Son of God. It is the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas.
There is some discussion as to the existence of the "Three Kings" or the Kings of the East. They are mentioned only in the Gospel of Matthew, which says that they came "from the east" to Jerusalem to worship the Christ, born King of the Jews. Because three gifts were recorded, there are traditionally said to have been three Magi, although Matthew does not specify their number in his gospel.
Jesus was a decedent of the Jewish King David, and did have a rightful claim to the Jewish crown, which was at the time held by Herod.
The term Magi is a Latinization of the plural of the Greek word magos and was specific as an occupational title referring to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, which among other things, studied Astrology and the stars, which at the time was a highly regarded science. Their religious practices and use of astrological science caused derivatives of the term Magi to be applied to the occult in general, and lead to the English term "magic". The same word is translated as sorcerer and sorcery when describing "Elymas the sorcerer" and "Simon Magus" who was considered a heretic by the early church.
Various church texts give a number of different names to the Magi, although the three most commonly held are Capar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Many Chinese Christians believe that one of the magi hailed from China, although where the Magi actually came from is largely speculation. Some say they were from Persian or Parthian, while others believe they came from Babylon, which was the center of the study of astrology at the time. Matthew probably did not have a specific location in mind when he used the term "from the east".
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the magi found Jesus by following a star. The Biblical text indicates that they found Jesus around two years after his birth, so the nativity scenes showing the kings presenting their gifts to the Christ child in his manger are completely and totally inaccurate. Upon finding him they gave him three symbolic gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Warned in a dream that the Judean king Herod intended to kill the child, they decided to return home by a different route. This prompted Herod to resort to killing all the young children in Bethlehem in an attempt to eliminate a rival heir to his throne.
Called the "Massacre of the Innocents" Jesus and his family escaped into Egypt beforehand. Some historians and critics consider this portion of the nativity story to be an invention of Matthew, as there are few other documents supporting Matthew's story. Matthew does not actually report on the birth of Christ, Luke does that. Matthew focuses instead on what occurred later introducing the Magi into the Christian dogma.
After their visit, the Magi vanish and do not reappear in historical references again. There are many traditional stories about what happened to the Magi after this, with one having them baptized by St. Thomas on his way to India. Another has their remains found by Saint Helena and brought to Constantinople, and eventually making their way to Germany and the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral.
Many different theories of the meaning and symbolism of the gifts have been advanced; while gold is fairly obviously explained, frankincense, and particularly myrrh, are much more obscure. They generally break down into two groups:
· That they are all ordinary gifts for a king — myrrh being commonly used as an anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume, and gold as a valuable.
· That they are prophetic — gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of priestship, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death. Sometimes this is described more generally as gold symbolizing virtue, frankincense symbolizing prayer, and myrrh symbolizing suffering.
It has been suggested by scholars that the "gifts" were in fact medicinal, rather than precious material for tribute. Others say that the items brought were the tools of the Magi, and it is suggested that is symbolic of the Magi abandoning their heathen practices by relinquishing the necessary tools of the trade.
The gifts themselves have also been criticized as mostly useless to a poor carpenter and his family, and this is often the target of comic satire in television and other comedy. Clarke states that the deist Thomas Woolston once quipped that if they had brought sugar, soap, and candles they would have acted like wise men. What subsequently happened to these gifts is never mentioned in the scripture, but several traditions have developed. One story has the gold being stolen by the two thieves who were later crucified alongside Jesus. Another tale has it being entrusted to and then misappropriated by Judas.
In the Monastery of St. Paul of Mount Athos there is a 15th century golden case containing purportedly the Gift of the Magi. It was donated to the monastery in the 15th century by Mara Branković, daughter of the King of Serbia Đurađ Branković, wife to the Ottoman Sultan Murat II and godmother to Mehmet II the Conqueror (of Constantinople). Apparently they were part of the relics of the Holy Palace of Constantinople and it is claimed they were displayed there since the 4th century AD. After the Athens earthquake of September 9, 1999 they were temporarily displayed in Athens in order to strengthen faith and raise money for earthquake victims.
Celebrations of Epiphany have rather fallen out of practice in modern Christianity.
In New Orleans, Louisiana and surrounding regions, a ring-shaped cake known as a "king cake" traditionally becomes available in bakeries from the Epiphany through Mardi Gras. The Baby Jesus is represented by a small, plastic doll in the cake. The different varieties of pastry involved is large. However, due to recent encroachment of commercialism and liability concerns, king cakes may be available year round and the plastic doll is not hidden in the cake, but just included in the packaging.
Traditionally, the Christmas Tree is to be put up on Christmas Eve, and left up for the 12 days of Christmas with it being dismantled on the evening of January 5th. Most modern households do not follow this practice. It is however, still considered bad luck to leave your tree up after the Feast of the Three Kings, so if they have not done so, make sure your humans take the tree down today or tomorrow.