Ever noticed initials like that scrawled on or above Czech doors and wondered what it was all about?
Schoolteachers doing a spot of freelancing on the way home or a note from a wife to a husband saying “don’t bother coming in if you’ve forgotten the milk again, buddy”. Nope, it’s just that Kaspar, Melichar and Balthazar are in town and they’ve been around town chalking their initials on houses for the New Year.
They’re not just some gang of mischievous teenagers on the loose for the holidays, though. They’re the Three Kings who visited Bethlehem with gold, frankincense and myrrh a little over 2000 years ago. You might know them better as the Three Wise Men or the Magi, and if you’ve been travelling Europe for while, you’ve certainly passed a painting or two in their honour. Botticelli, Breughel, Rubens and Velázquez have all had a shot, and the Uffizi gallery in Florence holds two of the most notable works; by Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer.
The 6th of January is the Three Kings’ Day, and as the 12th and final day of Christmas it’s also the day that many households, towns and cities choose to pull down their Christmas decorations and pack them away for another year.
Are the chalked K+M+B’s a form of low-tech tagging by the Three Kings then? A kind of ancient “K+M+B were here”? Well, partly. The three letters are their initials and do show that they’ve been to visit, but the inscription also stands for Christus mansionem benedicat (Christ bless this house), and is intended to wish health and luck on the occupants for the coming year, which is why the chalk is left up even when Three Kings’ day is over.
In the Czech lands (and nearby) the traditional commemoration of Three Kings’ Day has evolved to become one of collecting for charity and trios of young collectors dressed as K+M+B will be doing the rounds for about a week. The money collected is used for things like caring for the disabled, projects in underprivileged communities and so on. Specifically this year, amongst other things, the donations will be put towards emergency housing for mothers with young children in Prague’s 5th district - Smichov, and to purchase an X-Ray machine for a hospital in Uganda.
So if you’re in the Czech Republic today and bump into Kaspar, Melichar and Balthasar, spare them a coin or two, it’s a local tradition that goes back a long way and the money is going to good causes…
Sunday, 6 January 2008