When my maternal grandparents were alive, a mysterious chalk message featuring the letters ‘K+M+B’ followed by the current calendar year were written on top of their inside front door frame.

The letters represented the names of the Magi — Kaspar, Melchior and Balthazar — and were a way of blessing one’s house for the year.  As we were not often at my grandparents’ on January 6, I only once saw my grandfather write this in chalk. It was always done on the inside lintel in the same place.  He wrote the entire message every year, so didn’t just change the number!  (He also recited a prayer silently, no doubt similar to the one near the end of this post, so read on to find out more.)

Having done a bit of research over the past few years, I have discovered that this is a worldwide Epiphany tradition among Christians of various denominations.

Early in January 2009, Pastor Richard Campeau of the Golden Baptist Church in Golden, British Columbia, Canada, wrote:

Last Sunday, as is our tradition on Epiphany Sunday, our Sunday School children wrote 20+C+M+B+09 in chalk on the doorposts of the church. Many of us will do the same in our homes on Tuesday, January 6, the Epiphany.

Campeau referred readers to an excellent article on the subject, ’20+C+M+B+06: An Epiphany’ by Lauren Winner for Boundless Webzine, excerpts from which appear below (emphases mine):

Since the Middle Ages, people have been marking up doorposts and lintels like this during Epiphany. The celebration of Epiphany begins on Jan. 6, and the season ends just before Lent. And, in my view, Epiphany is one of the most important and sadly under-celebrated seasons of the church year.

Epiphany — the word comes from the Greek for manifestation, or to appear or to show forth — is the season the church devotes to seeing who Jesus is. Many churches begin their observance of Epiphany with a recitation or even reenactment of the three wise men bringing their gifts to the baby Jesus. The gifts help us to see who Jesus is: gold is a gift one gives a king; frankincense, a special incense with curative powers that was used by the Israelites in front of the Tent of Meeting, shows us that Jesus is the true tent of meeting, the place we go to meet God; and myrrh, an embalming resin used to prepare bodies for burial, shows us that Jesus was born to die. The wise men’s gifts, in other words, make something about Jesus manifest — and the wise men themselves, as the first people who will take word of Jesus to a larger audience, show forth the infant king to their corner of the world.

During Epiphany, churches also read about Jesus’ baptism, a dramatic event at which God “showed forth” something of Jesus’ uniqueness. This time of year, I am often reminded of a minor character in the movie Amistad, a slave who becomes a Christian; after coming to faith, he sees crosses everywhere he looks. That is what Epiphany invites us into: a new kind of seeing.

Epiphany is a season of Light. After we have packed away the Christmas lights with which we strung our trees, we find the church calendar giving us still more time and space to consider Jesus, the Light of the World, and to consider the way that we might get our own lights out from under all those bushels, and manifest Jesus to the world. When you think about it, it is a little odd that evangelical churches, on the whole, do so little with Epiphany, because the season is a great time to introduce ourselves and the world to who Jesus is! …

Ways — in addition to Chalk Parties — to Celebrate Epiphany:

1. Epiphany is, in part, a great capstone to Christmas — knowing that we celebrate Epiphany beginning Jan. 6 can help us actually celebrate Christmas for all 12 days. We can set Epiphany (not, say, Dec. 27) as the day to take down our Christmas decorations.

2. In the 17th and 18th centuries, an Epiphany Cake, or Twelfth Night cake, was popular. The cake — which was basically a fancy spice cake — was baked with a bean inside. Whoever got the piece of cake with the bean became king for a day. (That person also had to foot the bill for next year’s Epiphany cake and festivities.)

3. Epiphany is a good time to sing “What Child Is This?”

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

4. Epiphany is also a great chance to do something, with friends or family, an activity in which you show forth Christ’s light

In Britain, Twelfth Night is another name for Epiphany, meaning the evening of January 6, during which we recall the visit by the Magi.  Here in England, traditionalists like us will have a special dinner after having taken down our tree, decorations and cards for Christmastide.  We do not have the ‘K+M+B’ tradition here, however.

The Revd Canon W Gordon Reid tells us that he blesses the ‘K+M+B’ chalk on Epiphany:

Of course I will bless gold, frankincense and myrrh on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord, or “The Manifestation of Our Lord to the Gentiles” as the Prayer Book puts it. But I shall also be blessing chalk and then distributing it to the faithful.

Why? Well, so that they can write blessed words with it, of course! The chalk is meant to be taken home and used to write over the door of your house these symbols …

This is the prayer to be said when the symbols are chalked up:

“O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God, we beseech thee to hear us: and vouchsafe to send thy holy Angel from heaven, to guard and cherish, to protect and visit, and evermore defend all who dwell in this house. I call upon thy Saints, Gaspard, Melchior, and Balthazar, to protect my family and my home from every harm and danger, and I place this mark over my door to remain as a constant reminder to us and to all who enter here that my house is truly a house of the Lord. O God, make the door of my house the gateway to thine eternal Kingdom. All this we ask through Jesus Christ they Son our Lord. Amen.

Please note that ‘Kaspar’, ‘Caspar’ and ‘Gaspard’ are all variations of the same name.

In our busy world, it is all too easy to forget about Epiphany or misplace the traditional date.  Some churches have already celebrated Epiphany, yet, it is important to remember that in the true Church calendar, it comes 12 days after Christmas.  It is sad that modern life forces us to adapt to Sunday-only schedules for feast days.  So, let us try to commemorate the actual days and the traditions associated with them.

(Photo credits: Kuria Gliwice, The GBC Pulpit and St Anthony Camden.)

Tomorrow: A Lutheran perspective on the Epiphany