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If you have ever spent a Jan. 6 in parts of Europe, you might have noticed the letters “C+M+B” chalked on the lintel above the front door.

And if you have, you have probably wondered what they mean.

They are part of a tradition marking Three Kings Day, and honor the Magi who brought gifts to the baby Jesus.

Early Christians celebrated Christmas on Jan. 6. Many of them switched to Dec. 25 in the fourth century and called the later date the feast of the Epiphany — when Christ’s appearance was made known to the wise men and the rest of the human race.

While the Orthodox Church still marks Christmas on Jan. 6, the Catholic church calls the day “Three Holy Kings Day.” In many parts of Europe, including Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Spain, the Christmas holiday does not end until this date.

According to several Web sites, some aspects of the Magi are not clear. For example, the Book of Matthew does not say there were three of them — this was just assumed, since they brought three gifts (myrrh, gold and frankincense). And it was not until the eighth century that the men were known as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar and finally identified as kings.

During the 16th century, an activity called “star-singing” became popular. In those days teachers and their pupils went from house to house, singing and telling the story of Jesus’ birth and life. They were dressed as kings, carrying a star in front of them. After they finished, they asked for cake, nuts or money.

Toward the end of the 19th century, star-singing had almost been forgotten. Refugees from Silesia (now parts of Poland and the Czech Republic) brought the custom back to Austria and Germany. Nowadays, it is quite popular in predominantly Catholic areas in those countries.

Donations collected during these activities are used for charity work within the church. It is customary to bless the donors’ houses, and to mark them in chalk with the letters “C+M+B” plus the year of the blessing on top of the door.

There are two explanations for the meaning of the letters. The first is that they are the initials of the three kings. The other is they stand for the Latin expression “Christus mansionem benedicat,” meaning “may Christ bless this house.”

The blessing is supposed to keep evil spirits away.

There are also some secular customs connected with the day. One says that if the day is sunny and still, winter will last until Easter.

Another claims: “Holy Three Kings Day without ice means that there will be snow on Pankratius Day (May 12).”

So this Saturday, watch for the star-singers, and if they stop at your home, reward them generously. It might be the wisest thing you do all year.

Stripes in 7

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