Epiphany (Three Kings’ Day): How to celebrate this German holiday on January 6
Every year on January 6, the Christmas season comes to a final end in Germany on Three Kings’ Day (Tag der heiligen Drei Könige or Dreikönigstag - also known as Epiphany in English). We dive into the origins of this winter holiday, and look at how it is celebrated in Germany today.
What is Three Kings’ Day (Dreikönigstag) in Germany?
Three Kings’ Day (Dreikönigstag) is a religious feast day observed on January 6 each year and marked as a public holiday in the states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Saxony-Anhalt. In western Christianity, the feast commemorates the arrival of the Magi (the Three Wise Men or the Three Kings) in Bethlehem to present their gifts to the baby Jesus.
In Germany, it marks the end of the Christmas season: all Christmas markets close by January 6, and on the evening of Epiphany, families typically light their Christmas tree for a final time before taking down their decorations.
Origins of Epiphany
Epiphany - which is derived from the Greek word epipháneia, meaning manifestation or appearance - originated as a feast day upon which people would commemorate many aspects of Jesus’ life, including his birth, baptism, the visit of the Magi, his childhood events and other miracles.
Over time, however, the celebration was split and emphasis was placed on two major, separate feast days: on December 25 the birth of Jesus was celebrated (Christmas), and on January 6 churches marked the visit of the Magi. This resulted in the name of the latter feast being changed in German, from Epiphanias, to Heiligen Drei Könige or Dreikönigstag.
The Three Kings
The Magi or Three Kings were said to have followed a bright star to the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem. Although pagans, they recognised the divinity of Jesus, and they bowed down to him and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In the original Bible story, no mention is made of how many Magi there were, or what their names were, but since there were three gifts, gradually over time the story has crystallised around that: there were three men, and their names were Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar.
Image credit: Adam Jan Figel / Shutterstock.com
Epiphany traditions: How is Three Kings’ Day celebrated in Germany?
As a religious feast day, Epiphany is celebrated in Protestant and Catholic communities across Germany. It is usually celebrated on January 6, though some congregations move the feast day to land on the first Sunday after January 1. Over time, a number of traditions have come to be associated with the feast day. Here’s how Three Kings’ Day is celebrated in Germany.
Taking down the tree
As mentioned, Three Kings’ Day traditionally marks the end of the Christmas season in Germany. Some families might take their Christmas decorations down on the evening of January 5 (Twelfth Night), while others wait for January 6. The Christmas tree is lit for a final time, and the household shares a meal. Some families also keep back one Christmas present for the children to open on this day.
Image credit: Tanja Esser / Shutterstock.com
Chalking the door & Sternsinger
Children often also take part in Sternsingen (star singing). This tradition, which dates back to the 16th century, involves dressing up as the three kings and going door to door singing carols and collecting money for charity. At each house they visit, they chalk the year, an asterisk, and “C+M+B” on the door. The letters stand for “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” (Christ bless this house) - and not Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, as you might think!
As Epiphany is a religious feast, it’s also common for religious families in Germany to attend a special service on this day. If the church has a nativity display, they will often place the Magi in the display on January 6.
King cakes & Beer
Epiphany also comes with its own traditions when it comes to food in Germany. In the federal republic, as in many other parts of Europe, you might see special king cakes (Königskuchen) being baked for the holiday. If you find a coin, a bean, or a small figurine in your slice, you are bestowed with either luck for the year or the privilege of being the king or queen for the day!
In some regions, they also brew a special type of beer known as Bockbier, and friends and families will gather over Epiphany to drink to each others’ health. If you’re partaking in a tipple, watch out, as Bockbier can be quite strong!
Celebrating the Epiphany German holiday on January 6
So whether you’re heading out singing, baking a king cake, or just enjoying a day off work, we wish you a happy Three Kings’ Day!
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