The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Christmastide
its History, Festivities and Carols

William Sandys, F. S. A.
London: John Russell Smith, 1852

Chapter 9 - Three Kings offering

The subjects of the offerings at the Epiphany, with the accompanying legend of the Three Kings or Magi, and that of carol singing, require so much space that it has been thought preferable to devote particular chapters to them, rather than interrupt the narrative of Christmas festivities.

The offerings on the day of the Epiphany were in remembrance of the Manifestation of our Saviour to the Gentiles, and of the gifts made to Him by the Magi, or Wise Men of the East; when “the kings of Tarshish and of the isles brought presents; the kings of Sheba and Saba offered gifts,” or, as the ‘Bee Hive,’ of the Romish Church, states it, “Kings came out of the Moor’s land to worship Christ.”

The king of the bean was the forerunner of our Twelfth- Day King in the Saturnalia a king was elected, and as some say by beans, by way of lot, and he was invested with full power over the guests, and from him the lord of Misrule, under his various names, may take his origin; but the king of the bean and Twelfth-Day king were strictly confined to Twelfth Day, and ephemeral in their rule.

At the time of our Saviour’s birth, there was an expectation of his appearance among many of the heathen nations; it is said even that the initiated in the religious mysteries of the Persians, possessed as a secret handed down from the time of Zoroaster, that a divine prophet should be born of a virgin, whose birth should be proclaimed by the appearance of a bright star. The celebrated prophecy of Balaam, also made an impression on the surrounding nations; “I shall see him, but not now; I shall behold him, but not nigh; there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.” When the star eventually appeared, the Magi, or Three Kings, as they are commonly called, eagerly followed it to the cradle of our Saviour to pay their adorations, —

See how from far upon the eastern road,
The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet.”1

According to old legends, which are always fond of embellishment, this star was an eagle flying and beating the air with his wings, and had within it the form and likeness of a young child, and above him the sign of a cross. D’Israeli mentions some rays of this star, in a collection of relics.

There are numerous histories of the magi or kings themselves, all agreeing as to their number having been three, but some of them differing entirely in name. We may, however, consider Melchior, Jasper, and Balthasar, to be the genuine ones, and certainly more euphonious than Galagalath, Magalath, and Tharath; but even the legends that agree in the names, differ in the description of their persons, or in the appropriation of the presents given by them; but as Bede, in the seventh century, was the first writer in this country who has given a description of them, which he, no doubt, took from some earlier account, we may adopt, in the main, his history. According to this, Melchior was old, with gray hair and long beard, and offered gold to our Saviour in acknowledgment of his sovereignty; Jasper was young, without any beard, and offered frankincense in recognition of the divinity; and Balthasar was of a dark complexion, as a Moor, with a large spreading beard, and offered myrrh to our Saviour’s humanity; or as one of my family, Sandys the traveller, translates the description from ‘Festa Anglo-Rornana,’

“Three kings the King of kings three gifts did bring,
Myrrh, incense, gold, as to man, God, a king.
Three holy gifts be likewise given by thee
To Christ, even such as acceptable be
For myrrha tears; for frankincense impart
Submissive prayers ; for pure gold a pure heart.”2

Many of the ancient ecclesiastical writers endeavoured to find out mystical meanings in every sacred subject, in which, however, they have followers in the present day; so that the variety in appearance of the Three Kings may be supposed to have some reference to the three races of man, where, according to the Armenian tradition, Shem had the region of the tawny, Japhet that of the ruddy, and Ham that of the blacks.

The early heralds, who considered that none could be ennobled, or good, or great, without the aid of their science, little anticipating that, in after times, any one might have "arms found” for him, with crest and motto, according to order and price, and having some vague notions of the early origin of the same, emblazoned coats of arms for all the great characters in the Bible, commencing with Adam — giving one even to our Saviour. it may, therefore, be readily supposed that the Three Kings had theirs.3 Their journey lasted twelve days, during which they required no refreshment, it seeming to them as one day. After they had presented their gifts, the Virgin Mary gave them in return one of our Saviour’s swaddling clothes, which they took as a most noble gift.4 In after days they were baptised by St. Thomas, and some time subsequent to their deaths, their bodies were taken by the Empress Helena, in the fourth century, to Constantinople; from thence they were moved to Milan; and when this city was taken by the Emperor Frederick, in 1164, he gave these relies to Reinaldus, Archbishop of Cologne, whence they are commonly called the Three Kings of Cologne. There is some story of Louis the Eleventh having moved some of the bones from Cologne, as they were considered to be of sovereign virtue in royal ailments. Their names even were thought of great efficacy in falling-sickness and madness, if written on parchment, and hung about the patient’s neck, with time sign of the cross; and, as it is to be presumed in all these cases, with a good deal of faith.5 Another charm is rather more extensive in its benefits :—

“Sancti Tres Reges
Gaspar, Meichior, Belthazar,
Orate pro nobis, nunc et en horn
Mortis nostrn.

“Ces billets out touché aux trois têtes de S.S. Rois à Cologne.
Ils sont pour des voyageurs, contre les malheurs de chemins, maux de tête, mal caduque, fi
èvres, sorcellerie, toute sorte de malefice, et mort subite.”

It was found in the purse of Jackson, a celebrated smuggler, convicted of murder, in 1749, but did not prove efficacious with him, as he died, struck with horror, just after being measured for his irons. Another charm is to write their names in virgin wax, with a cross against each, and place it under the head of one who has had any thing stolen from him, and he will dream of what has become of the stolen article.6 If he does not remember his dream, it must be his own fault, of course. The names of the Three Kings, together with those of the four shepherds, who went to our Lord in Bethlehem — Misael, Achael, Cyrianus, and Stephanus — (in the Chester mysteries they have the more humble names of Harvey, Tudd, and Hancken), form a charm against the bite of serpents, and other venomous reptiles and beasts.7 One John Aprilius, when he was hung, having implored their assistance, was more successful than Jackson; for, after having been suspended for three days, he was found to be alive, and being taken down, he went to Cologne, half naked, with the halter about his neck, to return thanks, and, probably, to request that next time he might be taken down a little sooner. One Roprecht, a robber, was hung for certain crimes against society, but his body disappeared from the gibbet, whether by the intervention of the Three Kings or not, was unknown. In a short time, however, it was found hanging again, with the addition of a pair of boots and Spurs. As he was now really dead, and could tell no tales, this freak of his absconding for a short time, for the purpose, apparently, of being hung over again in boots and spurs, could not be explained by the people but the fact was, that some passer-by had, in the first instance, found him still living, and compassionately maintained him for some time; but, like the warmed viper, he returned to his old knavish practices, and stole his benefactor’s horse, when, being pursued and taken, he was, after some trouble, replaced in his old noose, and left to his fate.

According to Picart, the Feast of the Epiphany was established in the fourth century, though Brady says it was first made a separate feast in 813. It became, however, one of the most popular of the Christmas festivals, and some of the most splendid entertainments were given on this day; and in our times it is probably the most popular day throughout the Christmas, thanks to the Twelfth Cake, and drawing for characters, with other amusements. It was a very early custom to choose a Twelfth day king, or king of the bean, as he was formerly called; and this was originally a case of election, although afterwards, as at present, taken by lot; but, at the same time, the practice of election was also continued, even to recent times; the French court choosing one of the courtiers for king, who was then waited on by the other nobles, as late as the time of the revolution, when, amongst other vagaries, the ruling citizens, for the time being, changed “La fête de Rois,” to “La fête de Sans-culottes.” The students and citizens in the various cities and universities in Germany, also, used to choose one of their companions for king; and this practice would appear preferable to our practice of drawing for characters, and would probably ensure the election of the person best calculated to promote the wit and enjoyment of the evening, instead of taking the chance of the least adapted, or who may be called the “slowest” of the party drawing the lucky card. Even now, however, occasionally an election is made, and the fortunate elect then chooses his court for the evening.

In the last century, the Twelfth Night cards represented ministers, maids of honour, and other attendants of a court, and the characters were to be supported throughout the night. At present they are in general grotesque, and seldom possess much wit or humour. Many early notices may be met with of the antiquity of the custom. In “Les Crieries de Paris,” of the thirteenth century, the “Gastel à fève orroiz” is mentioned, which is described as a cake, with a bean for the “Fête de Rois,”8 and we shall find a present given to the court minstrels on the Epiphany, in the name of the king of the bean, in the time of Edward the Third.9 Down to the time of the civil wars, the feast was observed with great splendour, not only at court, but at the Inns of Court, and the universities (where it was an old custom to choose the king by the bean in a cake), and in private mansions and houses.

The lord mayor and aldermen, and the crafts of London also, used to go to St. Paul’s on Twelfth Day, to hear a sermon, which is mentioned as an old custom, in the early part of Elizabeth’s reign.

The usual course, of choosing by the bean, was to insert it in the cake, though sometimes a piece of money was put in instead. The cake was then cut up, and the person to whom the piece with the bean fell was the king for the evening. Sometimes pieces were allotted to our Saviour, and the Virgin Mary, and the Three Kings, which were given to the poor; and if the bean should be in either of these portions, the king was chosen by pulling straws. Baby-cake, in the mask of ‘Christmas,’ was attended by an usher, bearing a great cake, with a bean and pea. The king elect chose his queen, or occasionally a pea was inserted in the cake for the purpose, and they chose their officers; and in France, when either of them drank, the company were to cry out, on pain of forfeit, “Le Roi (ou la Reine) boit.”

Louis the Fourteenth, on one occasion, in his youth, was king of the bean, but would not undertake the office, handing it over to his governor, De Souvre.10

Herrick, in the seventeenth century, refers to the practice of choosing by the bean and pea

Now, Now, The Mirth Comes,
  With the cake full of plums,
Where beane’s the king of the sport here
  Beside we must know,
  The pea also
Must revell as queene in the court here.

  Begin then to chuse,
  This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here;
  Be a king by the lot,
  And who shall not
Be Twe1fth-Day queene for the night heere.”

The French twelfth-cake is still plain in appearance, containing a bean: it was composed, about 250 years since, of flour, honey, ginger and pepper; what it is made of now, Monsieur Verey can no doubt tell, if he will; they are however far exceeded in appearance by the rich frosted, almond pasted, festooned, bedizened, and carefully-ornamented cakes of the English pattern, gladdening the eyes of joyful holiday young people, and through them the hearts of their parents. The eager grouping of passers-by, to see the shop-windows crowded with these elegant productions of confectionary science, causes stoppages in our highways and thoroughfares, with reiterated “Move-ons” from our policemen. About twenty-five years ago there was one exhibited, said to weigh one ton, but it might have weighed any given number, being simply several large wedges of cake, all plastered together, at the top and sides, with one uniform coat of sugar-frost. Speaking from memory, and with a taste somewhat blunted to these enjoyments, the flavour was somewhat below the average, and curiosity was rewarded by ascertaining — to use a bad pun, which it is hoped may be excused—that it really was μεγα ήαπον (mega cakon).

The adoration of the Magi was a favourite subject in the early mysteries. The celebrated Marguerite do Valois, Queen of Navarre, wrote one on it as well as on the Nativity, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the Flight into Egypt, which were all published in 1547, in the collection of her works, called ‘Marguerites de la Marguerite des princesses, trèsillustre Reyne de Navarre.’

There are said indeed to have been representations in the French churches of the Three Magi as early as the fifth century; and there are French mysteries relating to them in the eleventh century, and also a Latin one mentioned by Lebeuf, wherein Virgil accompanies the kings on their journey; and at the end of the Adoration joins them very piously in the benedicamus.

The first feast of the Three Kings was celebrated at Milan in 1336, by the friar preachers, and was called the Feast of the Star. A golden star was exhibited, as if in the sky, preceding them; the Three Kings appeared on horseback, crowned and richly clad, with a large retinue, and bearing golden cups filled with myrrh, frankincense, and gold. They asked Herod where Christ should be born, and having been answered in Bethlehem, proceeded to the church of St. Eustorgius, preceded by trumpets, horns, apes, baboons, &c. In the church, on one side of the altar, was the representation of a manger, with an ox and an ass; and the infant Saviour in the arms of his mother, to whom the kings then made their offerings.11 It forms a favourite subject in our early English Mysteries, which were suppressed early in the time of James the First; but it was introduced as a puppet-show at Bartholomew fair as late as the time of Queen Anne.12 In ‘Dives and Pauper,’ 1496, it is stated, “For to represente in playnge at Crystmasse Herocles and the Thre Kynges and other processes of the gospelles both than and at Ester, and other times also, it is lefull and comendable.”

Several provincial French collections of Carols, published within these few years, contain a Mystery or Scripture play of the Adoration. The Feast of the Star, just mentioned, was retained to some extent in Germany up to the end of the last century; and Hoffman, in his ‘Honæ Belgicæ,’ contains the Star-song used on the occasion, as old perhaps as the fifteenth century, of which a nearly literal translation is given hereafter. The history of these kings was a favourite subject for tapestry and illuminations for books, of which numerous examples might be given; also for paintings on church and monastic walls, as Barclay, in his Egloges, says,

"...the Thre Kinges, with all their company,
Their crownes glistening bright and oriently,
With their presentes and giftes misticall
All this behelde I in picture on the wall."

The offerings by our sovereigns of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, continued down to the present time, is referred to elsewhere in this work. Melchior was said to have presented a golden apple, formerly belonging to Alexander the Great, — made from the tribute of the world — and thirty pieces of gold.

The history of these pieces of gold is curious, showing how ingeniously these legends were dovetailed together. They were first coined by Terah, the father of Abraham, and taken by the latter, when he left the land of the Chaldees. They were by him paid away to Ephron as part of the purchase money for the field and cave of Machpelah. The Ismaelites then, according to one account, paid them back as the price of Joseph to his brethren; and as, according to our version of the Scriptures, the price of Joseph was but twenty pieces, we may imagine the remainder were given for some other purpose; though Adam Davie, who wrote in 1312, referring to this event, says—” Ffor thritti pens thei sold that childe.” The money was afterwards paid to Joseph by his brethren during the time of scarcity; and on the death of Jacob, his son paid them to the royal treasury of Sheba for spices to embalm him. The celebrated Queen of Sheba, on her visit to Solomon, presented them to him with many other gifts. In the time of his son Rehoboam, when the King of Egypt spoiled the temple, the King of Arabia, who accompanied him, received these pieces of money in his share of the plunder, and in his kingdom they remained until the time of Melchior, who presented them to our Saviour. On the flight into Egypt, the holy family were closely pursued by Herod’s soldiers, and coming to a field where a man was sowing asked the way when they had passed on, the corn miraculously sprang up; just afterwards Herod’s soldiers arrived and inquired of the sower if he had seen our Saviour and his parents, but he told them that no one had passed since his corn was sown, on which the soldiers turned back and gave up the pursuit.13

This legend is mentioned in the carol of the The Carnal and the Crane. In the hurry of the flight the Virgin Mary dropped these pieces of money and the other gifts. They were found by a shepherd, who kept them by him, and in after years, being afflicted by some disease incurable by mortal aid, applied to our Saviour, who healed him, and he then offered these gifts at the high altar. They were subsequently paid to Judas by the priests as the reward of his perfidy. There are two reasons given for his requiring thirty pieces of money: one that he considered he had lost thirty pieces by the box of precious ointment not having been sold for 300 pence, of which he would have purloined the tenth part and the other, that having been sent by our Saviour, on Holy Thursday, with this amount of money, to provide for the last supper, he fell asleep in the way and was robbed. In the midst of his distress the rich Jew, Pilate, met him, and he then agreed to betray his master for the amount he had lost.

In one of our ancient chronicles there is a legend of the life of Judas, before he became an apostle, very similar, in many respects, to the well-known history of Œdipus, which need not be repeated here. When, smitten by remorse, he returned the money to the priests, and destroyed himself: they applied half in purchase of the potter’s field, and with the other half bribed the soldiers who guarded the sepulchre to say that the disciples came by night and stole the body of our Saviour. After this, having performed their mission, they were dispersed, and all traces of them lost. They were made of the purest gold, the term pieces of silver used in some parts of our translation with reference to them, being, according to the history, merely a common or generic name for money, like argent in French; on one side was a king’s head crowned, and on the other some unintelligible Chaldaic characters, and they were said to have been worth three forms each.

There are many old manuscript histories14 of these kings in existence, at the Museum15 and elsewhere, one of which resolves the whole story into alchemy; and early printed histories, as by Güldenschaiff, in 1477, and Wynkyn de Worde, in the beginning of the sixteenth century. Some account of particularly splendid feasts on Twelfth Day have been mentioned in the foregoing pages.

Their names were occasionally used as a term of adjuration, which, in former times, whatever may be case now, was a mark of respect. Diccon, in that quaint production ‘Gammer Gurton’s Needle,’ of which the plot and catastrophe would rather astonish a modern audience, says to Dame Chat,—

“There I will have you swear by oure deie lady of Bullaine,
Saint Dunstone and Saint Donnyke, with the Three Kings of Kullain,
That ye shall keep it secret.”

I will now conclude this chapter with the ‘Star Song,’ before referred to—

"We come walking with our staves
    Wreathed with laurel,
We seek the Lord Jesus, and would wish
    To put laurel on his knees;
  Are the children of Charles the King,
  Pater bonne Franselyn, Jeremie.

We did come before Herod’s door, he.
Herod, the king, came himself before, &c.

Herod then spake with a false man’s heart, &c.
Why is the youngest of three so swart &c.

Aitho’ he is swart, be is well be known, &c.
In orient land he has a throne, &c.

We all came over the lofty hill, &c.
And there saw we the Star stand still, &c.

Oh, Star! you must not stand still so, &c.
But must with us to Bethlehem go, &c.

To Bethlehem, the lovely town, &c.
Where Mary and her child sit down, &c.

How small the child, and how great the good, &c.
A blessed New year that gives us God,
&c.

Notes from Sandys:

1. Milton's Ode on the Nativity. Return

2. Sandys's Travels, 141. Return

3. Harl. MSS. 437, 639. Return

4. Apocryphal New Testament, 2, 3. - Infancy, iii, 2. Return

5. Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, 1638, 225. Return

6. Diary of Philip Henslowe, 70. Return

7. Hone's Every Day Book, i, 46. Return

8. Fabliaux et Contes, par Barbazan et Meon, ii, 285. Return

9. Strutt's Sports and Pastines, 8vo, 344. Return

10. Archives Curieuses de l'Histoire de France, 2 Series, v, 392. Return

11. Warton's History of Poetry, 8vo, ii, 91 n. Return

12. Harl. MS. 5931. Return

13. French Mystery of the 15th Century, 'Le Geu des trois Rois.' Return

14. MS. Bibl. Reg. 5 F. xiv, 7. Ib. 18 A, x, 8. Harl MS. 1704-11. Return

15. Harl. MS. 2407, 13. Return

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