The word epiphany comes from the Greek “epiphaneia” meaning “manifestation." The feast originated in the Greek Orthodox faith, there called Theophany, and it celebrates when the Christ child’s divinity shone through his humanity, as acknowledged by the Magi’s adoration.
James Joyce is generally credited with the crossover of such a religiously charged word to secular life and literature. A Google search brings this definition: "Epiphany in fiction, when a character suddenly experiences a deep realization about himself or herself; a truth that is grasped in an ordinary rather than a melodramatic moment."
The Bible does not delineate three Magi, but three gifts: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death.
Catholic tradition added a name and slight identity to each: Melchior representing, Europe; Gaspar, Asia; and Balthazar, Africa, and so the trio has shown up in creches since the 16th century.
And So, The tale of Melchior and Fred
My mother handmade me a nativity set many years ago. The figures are soft sculpture dolls filled with old nylon stockings. The set is a perfect representation of faith, love, and talent.
For the Wise Men, she used hat pins that had been her mother's as the jewels in each of their crowns. For the gifts, she found small trinkets for two of them, and wrapped up a sugar cube in tinfoil for the third, Melchior in fact.
Fast forward 20 years or so. When I open the Nativity box I see that the front of Melchior's robe is completely stained brown. Over the years, the sugar cube had finally liquified, or something, and that's what stained.
It was a shame, because the front panel of his midnight blue robe was a beautiful silver sparkle material. So my mother took Melchior home to fix the robe.
A few months later I open a small present from my Mom, and it's Melchior, in another robe. Well, it turns out it's not my old Melchior, it's a new king, whom I call Fred, with a fourth jeweled hat pin.
The oddest thing had happened. My mother lost Melchior. She had brought him down to her favorite thrift store to look for a remnant of material, and he disappeared. The thrift store ladies were as baffled as she. They had looked at him together, and then my Mom put him down to look for the fabric, and when she was ready to leave, my little king was simply gone. The ladies said they were sure he would turn up, and so my mom left.
The months passed, and the little king did not turn up. So that's when my mother made another one. Luckily she had one more hat pin, and so Fred joined Gaspar and Balthazar at Christmas 2011. He did a good job.
Fast forward to my birthday, October 2012. I open a present, and it's the original Melchior! After more than a year, he did turn up at the thrift store.
Where had he been? It's such a cinematic story.
He had fallen, unnoticed, into an open box in the thrift store while everyone's attention was elsewhere engaged. Maybe someone's elbow knocked him, maybe when someone opened the door enough breeze came in and he teetered down. It would be fascinating to have a videotape of what actually happened.
He fell straight to the bottom of a box, below the other things on top. Later that day a lid was put on that box, and it was put into a storage room. Echoes of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, right?
My Mom finished the repair on the robe, and gave it to me in October. What a surprise. If I were an animator, I would make this tale into a Toy Story-like movie, detailing Melchior's adventures in that box for a year. Like Woody and Buzz he probably got out of the box a bunch of times and bonded with other dolls stuck in that storage room, always waiting and hoping for the time when he would get back to his mission to bring gold to the Christ child.
And so for Epiphany, I have 4 kings in the creche. A reminder that where's there's life, there's hope, in all things. Always.
Up Max Steiner music.