When you’ve heard the Christmas carols of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” or “We Need a Little Christmas” you probably just thought of the Christmas celebration of December 25th. But there is another Christmas holiday known as “Little Christmas.” It is also known as the Epiphany, Three Kings Day or The Adoration of the Magi. The day celebrates the time when the three magi/wise men found the Christ Child after following a star to Bethlehem. While the Western Christian Church celebrates December 25th, the Eastern Christian Church recognizes January 6 as the celebration of the nativity.
Now you’ve also probably heard the song The 12 days of Christmas which is usually sung before the 25th talking about the twelve days leading up to that day. In actuality it should begin on Christmas Day (December 25) and end on January 5, the eve of the traditional date of the Epiphany or 12th night.
In many Spanish-speaking countries, Christmas Day is strictly religious, and gifts are exchanged on the feast of the Epiphany, when the wise men (or Magi) brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus, thus the reason we exchange gifts. The names the magi are accepted as Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.
The custom of blessing homes on Epiphany developed because the feast commemorates the time that the three kings visited the home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Traditionally after the blessing, the initials of the names of the wise men were written in chalk on the back of the door. They were enclosed by the year and connected by a cross. For this year it would read: 20+C+M+B+12. According to the Catholic Church the three letters really stand for the Latin words Christus mansionem benedicat which means, May Christ bless the house.
January 6th has its own traditions, rituals and symbols. The custom of the Star Singers, reminiscent of the travel of the Three Kings is celebrated in Bavaria and Austria. Beginning with New Years and through January 6, children dressed as the kings, and holding up a large star, go from door to door, caroling and singing a Three Kings' song to receive money or sweets.
Parades celebrate the event in Spanish-speaking countries as well as in the United States (New York, Los Angeles, and Puerto Rico have had annual parades).Other traditions include children leaving an empty shoe outside for the Kings or put a box of grass, corn, or other camel food under their beds at night on January 5th in hopes of finding a gift the next day.
You can also celebrate the holiday by enjoying a Rosca de Reyes. This is a festive round cake with a whole in the center that is topped with trinkets and candy. Baked into the cake is a small plastic baby Jesus. If you find him in your slice, tradition says you must throw a party on Feb. 2, Candlemas Day, and serve tamales to your guests. The sixth of January is also the traditional start of Mardi Gras in New Orleans every year. They also celebrate with a King cake and parades.
Though I am not of Spanish decent on any part of my family tree, we have always celebrated January 6 as the end of Christmas. All the decorations stay up till that day. I still keep up that family tradition in my own home here in Texas. As I was driving home this evening, I noticed a few others keep that tradition as well – including the biggest Christmas light decorations in the neighborhood.
Here’s my wish to you…Have a Merry Little Christmas!