Did you leave out the grass and water for the camels last night? Good. Did you get some sweet, sweet stuff in your shoes this morning? Check. Now that we’ve properly celebrated, we’re giving your our Tres Reyes gift: 10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About 3 Kings Day!
- The “official” name of the holiday is the Epiphany.
- The Three Kings’s traditional names – Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior – don’t appear in the Bible. The names supposedly come from mysterious Greek documents from around 1500 years ago, but other countries don’t put so much stock in them. In Ethiopia, for example, their names are Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater.
- The Three Kings only appear in the gospel of Matthew, which is also the only gospel to tell the story of Mary’s virgin conception and the trip to Bethlehem, the whole King Herod baby-killing thing, and the manger.
- The Bible never specifies how many of these guys there were. It’s traditionally been assumed that there were three because there were three gifts mentioned – gold, myrrh, and frankincense. Some traditions give the number as twelve.
- Myrrh is a resin found in some thorny desert plants that was used as a ritual embalming and anointing ointment.
- Frankincense is also a strong smelling resin used in perfumes, ointments, and incense. It’s also swiftly going completely extinct – the Boswellia tree from which it’s harvested is dying off due to a combination of natural hazards, farming, wildfires and, unforunately, over-tapping.
- Santa Claus is a pretty new in Spanish and Latin American Christmas celebrations. Until a few decades ago, the niñitos got their gifts from the Three Kings. Which makes a lot of sense. And camels are cooler than reindeer.
- The only information the Bible gives us on the Reyes’ origins is that they’re “from the East.” Traditionally, they’re depicted as being from Europe, Asia, and Africa – the three known parts of the world before that Columbus guy. In Spain there’s recently been a bit of a push to get Balthazar, the Rey usually depicted as being from Africa, to be actually played by an actor of African descent in holiday pageants, rather than just a white person in blackface as is usually the case. We can get behind that.
- The gift of gold is usually attributed to the European Rey, as frankincense and myrrh are native to Africa and Asia.
- The Three Kings may not have been kings at all. The Bible calls them wise men, or “magi.” If you have a passing knowledge of Latin, you’ll known that the singular of “magi” is “magus,” and if you have a passing knowledge of Harry Potter you know what a “magus” is. But hold up: it’s not that simple. “Magi” were the priest caste of a religion known as Zoroastrianism which existed in the East at the time and is sometimes cited as a competitor with/inspiration for Christianity, and they specialized in astrology and astronomy – both well respected arts and sciences at the time. (So what’s your sign?) That explains the importance of the Star of Bethlehem in the story – the Magi were men who spent all day studying the stars, and so of course they were going to investigate when something went screwy. The tradition that the men were kings probably comes from Psalms 72:11, “May all kings fall down before him.”
The word “magi” became associated with all sorts of occult practices until it become the English word “magic,” ergo Harry Potter. We still like imagining that Caspar could change his appearance and that Balthazar could turn into a cat, and that maybe, just maybe, the fourth gift was Jesus’ acceptance letter to Hogwarts.