Stories are fascinating. As a writer, I’m very interested in how they develop, who writes them down, what they emphasize, include, and/or leave out. The Feast of the Epiphany is on January 6. In the US, the feast is typically celebrated at Mass on the second Sunday after Christmas which in 2015 fell on Sunday January 4.
The Gospel account of this story appears in Matthew 2:1-12. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait. Interestingly enough, in this passage, there is no set number of wise men, the only person specifically named is King Herod, and the places from where they traveled afar are vaguely described as “from the east.”
We know from Scripture that the magi were foreign astrologers from distant lands. They studied the sky and were all drawn to one particular star. It was a common ancient belief that a new star appeared at the time of a ruler’s birth. Though we aren’t told how many magi there were, the tradition of having three originated, in part, because three different gifts are given: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (My favorite variation of this is: gold, common sense, and fur, though those three are also an unlikely grouping.)
The representations of the three wise kings are meant to symbolize that Jesus was born to save people of all races, ages, and locations. It’s possible there were more than three wise guys who spotted the star and followed it to the most logical place to look for a new ruler of the Jewish people, at the current ruler’s palace. Some traditions indicate that there may have been as many as twelve magi.
This was one time when stopping to ask for directions would lead to trouble. King Herod was angry at the thought of someone else serving in his place as “king of the Jews.” He tried to get the wise men to come back and tell him the exact location of this newborn, but after having a dream that they shouldn’t return to Herod, they went home by a different way than the one from which they came.
In some cultures and families, it is customary to exchange and open gifts on Epiphany instead of Christmas. Click here for some fun activities to celebrate with family or friends.
Epiphany Feasting in France
In France they have special cake for Epiphany called a galette des rois. This King Cake is baked with a little figurine inside of it or a bean. Whoever discovers the bean or figurine in their slice gets to be king or queen for the evening. The inedible item I recall finding in one of the galette des rois was a tiny porcelain-like castle of sorts. Here’s a galette des rois recipe in English.
During our January term while studying abroad in Paris, I volunteered at a food pantry through the local chapter of Secours Catholiques at a spot near where my host family lived. I would help stock the shelves with canned goods, some fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and baked items, then I’d assist people who came through with their cart to do their “shopping.” We had so many galettes des rois left over, I was able to take some home with me. Stale galette des rois don’t taste all that great, especially when you’re in France, where all of the bakeries have superior standards for their fresh bread and pastries.