Return of the Feast of the Three Kings

Dominik Rozanski

When Gomulka’s bill liquidating the day of 6 January as a public holiday was passed in the autumn of 1960, Poles were deprived of the possibility of celebrating the Feast of the Three Kings in a worthy way. After 50 years the public holiday was restored.
The three-year campaign, initiated by the former president of Lodz Mr Jerzy Kropiwnicki, began a civilian legislative initiative, supported by numerous Poles (in 2008 – 700,000 people; in 2009 – 1 million), succeeded after many perturbations. Although in the years 2008-2009 the projects of bills concerning the restoration of the Feast of the Three Kings were blocked by the MPs of the Civic Platform and the Democratic Left Alliance, in January 2010 the Civic Platform introduced a project restoring the feast day on 6 January (the Feast of the Three Kings) in the Parliament and hope revived. But, as it often happens, the principle ‘something for something’ was applied in this case. Agreeing to the public holiday on 6 January, the MPs cancelled the notice in the labour code allowing workers to have another day off in lieu for other public holidays falling on Saturdays. ‘It was not meant to be like this’, the trade union activists say.

Myrrh, frankincense and gold

The Feast of the Three Kings disappeared from the Polish calendar for half a century, i.e. for two generations. And in the world the Feast of the Epiphany has been celebrated as one of the oldest Christian feast days. We can find traces of the celebrations of the Epiphany as early as in the 3rd century. At first the feast combined the Nativity of Christ, the commemoration of the visitation of the Three Magi, Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan and the miracle in Cana of Galilee. With time the main theme of the Latin liturgy of the feast day was the manifestation of the Saviour to the Three Magi from the East. The Wise Men, kings, paying homage to the newly-born infant Jesus, acknowledged him as God who reveals himself as a human. We can find the biblical source of this feast day in the Gospel of St Matthew, ‘When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem […] and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh’ (cf. Matthew 2:1-11).

Were they three for sure?

The Holy Scriptures do not say how many Magi arrived in Bethlehem but three gifts were mentioned. Therefore, the conviction of three Magi was widely spread. However, this number was variously interpreted. In the early paintings we can see two, four or six figures and even twelve in some Armenian paintings. But the story of three wise men has been prevailing in the tradition of the Church. The early Christian philosopher and theologian Origen (ca. 186-254) gave this number. St Matthew did not mention the names of the wise men. Their names: Kaspar, Melchior and Balthazar probably appeared on the 6th century mosaic in the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna for the first time.
The homage of the Three Kings belongs to the canon of religious painting. However, the anthropomorphic presentation of God and saints were not recognised by the early Christians. When Christianity spread beyond the territory of Palestine it confronted other cultures, and Christian art was influenced by them. The significance of the figural form in the Greek-Roman civilisation was so gigantic that it also influenced Christians. The transfer of the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, called Constantinople or New Rome, in 330 AD, was decisive for the formation of Christian culture. The announcement of New Rome meant an unavoidable division of the empire (in the year 395), which led to the creation of separate and different Christian cultures of the East and the West.
With time the scenery of the homage became more impressive. The enlarged composition shows the homage of the Magi and their large court, rich robes, exotic animals in their retinue. The infant receives plenty of gifts. The kings give frankincense – gift for God, myrrh – corresponding with the human nature of the Saviour, and gold as a gift for the king. The custom of blessing gold, frankincense and chalk is connected with the Feast of the Epiphany. We use the blessed chalk to write the letters K+M+B and the current year on the door, showing that we receive Jesus in our household. Today, when one can see a struggle for the existence of the cross in public space such a confirmation assumes a special meaning. It is a sign that we are not ashamed of our faith.
Mr Stanislaw Szwed, an MP of the Law and Justice Party, an activist of the Trade Union ‘Solidarity’ and vice-president of the parliamentary Commission on Social Policy and Family, said, ‘Despite the fact that the right to have another day off in lieu of other public holidays falling on non-working days, I am extremely happy that after 50 years we have the Feast of the Three Kings again as a public holiday and that we, Catholics, can celebrate it in a worthy way. This bill was strongly opposed by employers, arguing that another public holiday will harm business. I tried to convince the MPs not to deprive employees of free days in lieu of other public holidays falling on Saturdays but my amendments were rejected. However, in my opinion the benefits are bigger than losses. The Feast of the Three Kings – the Epiphany – is only one and incomparable.

"Niedziela" 1/2011

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
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