Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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Don’t just note the feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 4 — relive it in your home.
BY Joseph Pronechen
Growing up in a large Slovak parish, I learned the
joy and wonder of celebrating all the traditions of the Christmas season. One
was the Epiphany, or “Little Christmas,” as it’s also sometimes called. A big
highlight was the excitement and expectation for our parish priest to come
bless our home every year.
We would follow him in procession as
he blessed each room, then gaze in awe as he took out blessed chalk to inscribe
over the main entrance’s lintel the current year, little crosses and three
initials — 20+C+M+B+09. This temporary inscription was a reminder of the Three
Kings — Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar — and more, for months to come.
While this Epiphany tradition, its
variations, and some additional customs were later shelved in many places, they
have remained alive — or are making a comeback — in pockets around the country.
(The traditional date for
commemorating the Epiphany was Jan. 6 — the 12th Day of Christmas. Now it’s a
movable solemnity; the Church celebrates it on the Sunday nearest the 12th day.
This year it falls on Jan. 4.)
On the West Coast, Dominican Father
Paul Raftery, a chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.,
finds the practice growing in popularity and believes it needs to become more
widespread. He has seen families ask their parish priest to bless chalk, which
they then bring home to use for the old custom.
“The Church’s devotional practices
are such an effective tool to bring the mysteries of the faith into daily
life,” Father Raftery explains. “The practices of the home need to be brought
into wonderful harmony with the liturgical year and the great feasts. The more
that can happen, the more people will be living out the most important aspects
of life, the mysteries of our faith.”
Jennifer Miller in Manassas, Va.,
remembers processing with her family, singing “We Three Kings” as their priest
blessed the house. Her dad, playing one of the kings, marked the lintels. Today
Miller, who writes about traditional liturgical year celebrations on
FamilyFeastAndFeria.wordpress.com, continues the tradition with her family. Her
six siblings do the same. Together, they invite a priest to one house, and then
in a familiar variation of the tradition, each husband marks the door lintel in
their family home.
Another variation on this popular
Epiphany custom gets children involved. Helen Hull Hitchcock, director of Women
for Faith and Family (online at WF-F.org), describes how, when her four
children were young, the youngest was hoisted by Dad to inscribe the lintel
with the chalk their pastor had blessed for them. (The father usually prays an
Epiphany house blessing, such as from the old Roman Ritual, in these cases.)
“They were always proud and careful
about the way they would make their letters C+M+B,” Hitchcock says. Now she
continues the tradition with her grandchildren.
“It’s a good way to catechize
children about the Three Kings,” she says. “It is meaningful to them because
they understand from a very young age the significance of the year and the
initials, and why this blessing.”
The Vatican’s Directory
on Popular Piety and the Liturgy not only speaks of adapting or
reviving these customs and traditions in Catholic families, but also explains
that the inscription reminds us of the cross of salvation — and the initials of
the Wise Men written in the blessed chalk can also be interpreted to mean Christus
Mansionem Benedicat (May Christ bless this home).
There’s a double meaning for the
coming year “to have that present over the doorpost as a written invocation of
blessing on people coming into and going out of the house
and invoking the intercession of the Three Kings, who are honored as
saints in the Church,” says Father Raftery. (The remains of the Three Kings
have been honored in the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, since 1163.)
Along with other chaplains, he inscribes all the dorm rooms and
buildings on the Thomas Aquinas campus.
Another custom has the Three Kings
not arriving at the crèche until the Epiphany. At Seton School in Manassas,
teacher Anne Carroll says students watch large statues of the Magi travel
through the school and finally arrive at the chapel’s Nativity scene on the
At the home of teacher Dan and
Maryan Vander Woude, the five boys similarly watch figures of the Three Kings
journey from far across the room to their Nativity set. “It brings them closer
to the events of Our Lord’s birth,” Maryan says of the custom.
The same goes for another tradition:
baking a colorfully decorated Epiphany Cake with its fancy gold crown atop and
three beans hidden inside (for one recipe, see WF-F.org). Those who find the
beans become “kings” at dinner for this “12th Night feast.” Then they can don a
crown and robe to bring gifts to the Christ Child in the manager.
According to Hitchcock, this custom helps
children understand that, at Epiphany, the Magi recognized the Infant Jesus as
Christ the King. Having children help in the kitchen with the cake “is a way of
reinforcing the story of the Magi,” she adds, “and it gives a chance to tell
them what it signifies.
“Parents can use all those kinds [of
customs] associated with the Church year to help reinforce Scripture and the
traditions of the Church,” says Hitchcock. “Home is the domestic church, as we
were told so well and so often by John Paul II and others, and this is the way
to reinforce the teaching they get in church and religion classes. The first
teacher and primary source of information to become Christians is what they get
from their parents.”
For Aileen Foeckler in Manassas, who
grew up in a family of 14 children whose mother “instilled in us a great love
of the liturgical year,” she says, this custom meant searching in cupcakes for
four buttons — yellow for gold, purple for frankincense, black for myrrh and
red for Herod. Those named the “Three Kings” would place the Magi at the
crèche, then everyone would reenact the Gospel story, adding the Holy Innocents
(all without buttons) in a modified version of hide-and-seek.
Foeckler continues the tradition
with her six boys, as do most of her siblings. Everyone gets gifts reflecting
the ones the Magi brought, generally in edible forms, like “gold coin”
chocolates. She finds these tangible customs make for unforgettable lessons.
“The Magi are not nameless strangers from way
back when,” she says. “Each child has an attachment to them.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is
based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
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