Tradition and History of the Three Wise Men

In the Christian world, the Magi Kings, also known as the Wise Men, are three astrologists that by following the Star of Bethlehem came from the east to adore the baby Jesus, the future king of the Jews, bringing him precious gifts. Their arrival at the nativity hut is accurately described in the Gospel of Matthew (2, 1-12). The word Magi comes from Persian ma-gu-u-sha, priest; it went through the ancient Greek μάγος (caste of Persian and Babylonian priests) and then became magus, in Latin. 
Let’s find out together the story of the Three Wise Men, according to the Gospel and the Holy Bible.

History of the Three Wise Men

Once they arrived in Judea, St Matthew tells about the arrival of the Magi Kings in Jerusalem (Roman Judea) at the court of Herod, asking him where was “the king who was born”. As the king Herod did not know anything about the prophecy of the Old Testament (Micah 5,1) he asked his scribes and exhorted the Wise Men to go to Bethlehem and tell him where to find the new-born king, so that Herod as well could have adored him.  
When the Wise Men arrived at the manger, they offered three gifts to Jesus: gold, incense and myrrh. A dream they had advised them about not going back to Herod, so the Wise Men came back to their territories through another way. When Herod found out about the Magi Kings, he started raging and ordered to kill every single child in Bethlehem under two years old, the famous Slaughter of the Innocents. Warned in his dreams, St Joseph escaped with the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus to Egypt (little figure below).

holy-family-escaping-to-egypt

Who were the Three Wise Men

The first representation of the three Magi Kings, Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, came up in the 6th century in the Basilica of St Apollinare Nuovo (Ravenna, Italy). In the 15th century, for the very first time, Balthazar was portrayed as a black man, who meant to represent the people of Africa. Melchior and Caspar meant to represent the people of Europe and Asia. According to the tradition, they were three, but this number is strongly linked to the number of the gifts that Jesus received. In reality, the original number of the Wise Men is uncertain, just like their exact origins. In the Gospel of Matthew it is written that they came from the east, without saying their exact territories of origin. According to the legend, the Wise Men were originally four. It seems that the fourth Wise Man, who left for Palestine with the other three, meant to bring to Jesus a necklace of pearls. On his way to Judea, the fourth man, for charity, gave as present the pearls of his necklace to poor men he met along the way and one after another he remained without any gift for the baby Jesus. As he did not want to arrive without any gift, he decided to go back to his territory and never arrived at the nativity hut. Anyway, due to his great act of charity, Jesus came into his dreams to thank him for his goodness and kindness. To give somebody a precious present is equivalent to giving it to Jesus.

Today traditions linked to the Three Wise Men

To celebrate the arrival of the Magi Kings, in some parts of the world such as Spain, there is the so-called Cabalgata de Reyes. On 5 January people celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men at Bethlehem, riding their horses or on the top of some parade floats that run the main streets of the cities. Together with the parade floats of the Wise Men, usually there are other floats with people dressed up as cartoon characters.

cabalgata-de-reyes-jerezCabalgata de Reyes, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain.

During the Cabalgata de Reyes, the Magi are used to throw from their floats many candies, lollipops and gifts such as stuffed animals, inflatable balloons or small gadgets.  
According to Spanish traditions, children receive their gifts on the day of Epiphany, as they are brought from the Wise Men (and not from Santa Claus). Another tradition consists of kids leaving their own shoes close to the house door (or windows) full of candies and lollipops. If the kid has been good during the year he/she will find his/her present the next day; otherwise he/she will just find sweet charcoal.
It is really typical in Spain to have breakfast, on 6 January, with the Roscón de Reyes, a typical dessert in the shape of a donut that hides inside a bean and a little figure representing a prince. Who finds the bean will have to buy or make the roscón for the next year, while who finds the prince figure will be crowned.

roscon-de-reyesRoscón de Reyes

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