Epiphany and the Three Magi - Medieval Christmas History

The Names and Gifts of the 3 Wise Men

The Magi. Mosaic from a late 6th century mosaic at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna.
The Magi. Mosaic from a late 6th century mosaic at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. CC Nina-no

You might recall the three magi from the traditional Christmas carol "We Three Kings of Orient Are." The chorus begins like this:

We three kings of orient are,
bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain,
moor and mountain,
following yonder star.

But have you ever wondered, who exactly are these three kings anyways? Learn more about the Christmas carol and the medieval Christmas history behind the lyrics.

Who Are the Three Kings?

In the conventional version of the Christmas story, the three kings were Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

They started the gift-giving custom of Christmas by bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ child on Epiphany, the day on which the infant was presented.

In the Christmas carol after the chorus, solos split off that are supposed to be sung by whoever is taking on the role of Gaspar, Melchoir, or Bathasar. Melchoir says,

Born a King on Bethlehem's plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again

Gaspar follows by singing,

Frankincense to offer have I,
incense owns a Deity nigh

Then Bathazar says,

Myrrh is mine,
its bitter perfume breathes
a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone cold tomb.

To clarify, myrrh is a healing oil that treats bruises, aches, and skin ailments.

Other Names for the Three Kings

The three kings are also referred to as the wise men, magi, Persian priests, and astrologers.

The magi were given other names, as well, including Apellus,  Amerus, and Damasius, which were used in Peter Comestor's medieval Historia Scholastica.

When Is Ephiphany?

Epiphany is the end of the Christmas season, 12 days after Christmas, which is, literally, the mass for Christ.

Christ + Mass = Christmas 

Christmas is often celebrated the evening before Christmas day, and Epiphany is often celebrated as the Twelfth Night. Gift-giving in some cultures extends throughout the 12 days of Christmas and in some places is limited to January 5 or 6.

Similarly, for those who celebrate only Christmas, gifts are exchanged on either December 24, Christmas Eve, or December 25, Christmas Day. Many Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7 because of the difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars.

Other References to the Magi

In the Gospels, Matthew mentions but neither numbers nor names the wise men. Here is a quote from King James Version of Matthew 2:

[1] Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, [2] Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Epiphany and the Three Magi - Medieval Christmas History." Learn Religions, Dec. 6, 2021, learnreligions.com/epiphany-and-the-magi-117724. Gill, N.S. (2021, December 6). Epiphany and the Three Magi - Medieval Christmas History. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/epiphany-and-the-magi-117724 Gill, N.S. "Epiphany and the Three Magi - Medieval Christmas History." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/epiphany-and-the-magi-117724 (accessed May 29, 2023).