Traditionally this is the celebration of the Magi arriving in Bethlehem to meet Jesus. Although almost all nativity plays have the Magi arriving at the birth of Jesus along with the shepherd, the Bible story records the Magi arriving when Jesus was around two and lived in a house in Bethlehem. We only encounter the Magi in the reading from Matthew.
The term ‘Magi’ shared the root word for ‘magic’ or ‘magician’, as well as “Magus’, who were believed to be a priestly class in the Zoroastrian tradition. They were astronomers, probably scientists, and to those who didn’t understand the science these folks practiced, they seemed like magicians. The ancient world commonly decided things were magic and mysterious if they couldn’t understand or explain them. Science was still relatively unknown even amongst the wealthy and well educated.
The term ‘kings’ is not in the Gospel of Matthew, but it does refer to a passage in Isaiah that talked about ‘kings from the east’. Isaiah was talking about Persian rulers centuries before Jesus’ birth, but those who read the early stories of Jesus made the connection.
The tradition of three gifts, three ‘wisemen’ and three named men comes from various times in history, but the Bible only mentions three types of gifts, not how many of each they presented. There is no number given of how many were present to visit Jesus, however, caravans were large groups of people who travelled together for safety, so we can be very sure there were more than three visitors, and they were probably a mix of women and men.
This day is also known as “Old Christmas”. This term goes back to the 18th century when the British Parliament adopted the Gregorian calendar, and effectively moving Christmas up twelve days to December 25th. Those who believed the Julian calendar was more accurate continued to use January 6th as the proper day of Christmas, thus the term ‘old’ was used. Some Christian traditions around the world still celebrate the birth of Jesus on this date. Those belonging to many Eastern Orthodox traditions, recognize January 6th as ‘Christmas Eve’, and celebrate on January 7th.