During one of my forays into Bavaria, deep in the Black Forest, a friend introduced me to one of the most magnificent Catholic customs on the books.

Epiphany morning came around and I asked my hosts when Mass would be. They replied that we had something important to do first. “More important than Mass,” I joked. “I’d like to see that.”

At that, as God would have it, we heard the distinct singing of carolers outside on the road.

“Ah! They’re here,” yelled Wolfgang. We went to the door and I was surprised to find a man in a Roman collar bundled against the Teutonic cold. He was accompanied by bevy of carolers, known as Sternsingers (“star singers”), referring to the star that guided the Magi. The entourage had already visited several other families on this frosty Epiphany morning. The strains of beloved traditional Christmas songs ― in German, of course ― filled the air, reverberating across the snow-covered fields.

The priest stepped up to the front door with a brace of altarboys whose candles had long since gone out in the frigid winds buffeting us all, shook hands with my friend and introduced me. My friend’s wife brought out a large thermos of hot chocolate and dispensed it to the grateful carolers. She also offered them slices of spicy, orange Three Kings cake ― a golden pastry meant to represent the gold, frankincense and myrrh the Magi offered Christ.

When everyone had finished their snacks, the priest was handed a large piece of sidewalk chalk. He stepped up to the doorway and upon the door’s lintel, he inscribed the following characters:

20 † C † M † B † 09

The first set of numbers and the last refers to the current year. The letters stand for the Three Magi: Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior. They also represent the three-word Latin blessing: Christus mansionem benedicat, which means, “May Christ bless this house."

The three crosses refer to the Blessed Trinity.

Before the carolers moved onto the next house, the children in the choir stepped up with a decorated box asking for donations for charity.

It’s unfortunate that American Catholics don’t have a specific tradition of marking Epiphany as special. For too many Catholics, the Christmas decorations have already long been taken down and put into the garage and the dried carcasses of the Christmas tree sit outside on the curb. Many don’t understand that Christmas isn’t a single day, come and gone. Rather, it’s the beginning of a 12-day Christmas season.

Epiphany, also known as “Little Christmas,” is the feast that celebrates the arrival of the Three Magi who had come to worship the Christ Child shortly after his birth (Matthew 2:1–12). It is also the day on which we commemorate Jesus’ Baptism (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23) and his first miracle at the Cana Wedding Feast (John 2:1–11).

The feast is chockablock full of Christian meaning and portents as these are all major events in Christ’s earthly ministry. Fourth-century Church Father Epiphanius of Salamis specifically pointed out in his writings that the Miracle at Cana occurred on Epiphany. Jesus’ Baptism may have been assigned to the same date as the birth because Luke 3:23 was interpreted to mean that Jesus was exactly 30 when he was baptized. Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus made the earliest written reference to Epiphany as a holy day in A.D. 361.

The feast falls on Jan. 6, however, some dioceses relegate the feast to a nearby Sunday. The vigil of the feast is known as Twelfth Night, as in the eponymous Shakespearean play.

The word Epiphany is derived from Koine Greek ἐπιφάνεια (epipháneia), which means “appearance” or “manifestation” and refers to Christ’s incarnation. The word appears twice in the Greek New Testament. The first is at God’s manifestation in 2 Maccabees 15:27. The second occurrence is in 2 Timothy 1:10 and may refer either to Christ’s birth or to his appearance after the Resurrection. Five additional passages use the Greek word but all refer to the Parousia ― Christ’s Second Coming.

Epiphany is celebrated by both the Eastern and Western Churches, often with great fanfare and pomp. Spanish, Hispanic, Brazilian and Portuguese faithful will celebrate the feast with extraordinary parades, often replete with live camels. After all, what’s a Wise Man without his trusty camel?

Upon returning to New York City, I spread word of this European custom in my parish and convinced one of our priests to make the rounds and chalk up my door. A house blessing ensued and there I was in possession of a freshly-blessed house with a graffito of which to be proud ― I was tagged by Christ himself by way of his mouthpiece, the Church. I was the talk of the neighborhood for weeks to come. Both Catholic and heathen neighbors ― looky-loos and rubberneckers alike ― came up to my front door to marvel at the seemingly “mystical” symbols the priest had inscribed upon my lintel. It’s almost a pity to have to explain the real meaning of the characters, but explain I did. All of the Catholics on my block asked why hadn’t anyone told them of this custom. I had no answer except to say that it’s still not too late.

If your parish has the good fortune to have a school, ask your parish priest to bless the main door’s lintel with the Epiphany blessing. Make sure your parish office can handle the deluge of phone calls from parishioners asking to have their homes similarly blessed.

We can institute this custom in every traditional parish in America if we wanted to. All it will cost you is the price of some hot chocolate, paper cups and a piece of sidewalk chalk. If you don’t have a parochial school attached to your parish, talk to your parish priest and show him this well-written and informative article and explain to him why marketing is important for the purposes of evangelization.

Let’s make Epiphany fun and personally meaningful again!