Three kings: Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar

The term epiphany means "to show" or "to make known" or even "to reveal." In many Western churches, it celebrates the arrival of the wise men bringing gifts to the Christ child at the manger in Bethlehem. Actually, though, the Bible says they arrived at "the house". In terms of time sequence, it may actually have been as much as three years after Jesus' birth. In any case, in coming to honor Jesus, they "revealed" Jesus to the world as Lord and King.

Epiphany goes by other names in various church traditions. In Hispanic and Latin culture, as well as some places in Europe, it is known as Three Kings’ Day (Spanish: el Dia de los Tres Reyes, la Fiesta de Reyes, or el Dia de los Reyes Magos; Dutch: Driekoningendag). In the Eastern churches it is known as the Theophany. The Catholic Encyclopedia mentions that Jesus' birth, the visit of the Magi, and his baptism were once all celebrated on January 6th.

The gifts

The tradition of giving Christmas gifts stems from the Wise Men (Magi). Their gifts to Jesus were quite costly... gold, incense (frankincense), and myrrh. Bringing gifts was very important in the ancient East when visiting a superior. The gifts of the wise men foreshadowed the reality of Jesus.

* Gold was a gift fit for a King.

* Frankincense is a glittering resin obtained from several trees. It has a wonderful smell when burnt, so it was used in worship at the Temple.

* Myrrh was a sweet-smelling spice, probably the aromatic gum exuded from the leaves of the cistus rose. Its oil was used in beauty treatments, and it was sometimes mixed with wine and drunk to relieve pain. And it had one other use - a perfume used in embalming. It was used in preparing Jesus' body for burial. Both frankincense and myrrh are still expensive today.

The Wise Men may have also brought myrrh for the baby Jesus for another reason -- it was used as a salve for skin irritations. Babies often get skin rashes (we'd call it "diaper rash".)

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