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 Epiphany.
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.