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A person visiting Poland for the first time may spot an unfamiliar inscription in white chalk on doors they pass – ‘K+M+B’ or ‘C+M+B’. The tradition of writing these letters has its origin in the 18th century. During the communist regime, many Poles continued this tradition as a demonstration of their own beliefs.
In 2010, the Polish parliament made 6th January a national holiday. On this day, the Catholic Church observes the Epiphany, more commonly known as the Feast of the Three Kings. According to the teachings of the church, three pagan kings came to worship the newborn Jesus on this day, in order to see the human representation of God for themselves.
At the beginning of the 21st century, an interesting tradition emerged in Poland: on the day of the Epiphany, beautifully costumed processions marched down the streets of hundreds of cities and villages around the country. ‘Kings’ with crowns on their heads, camels and horses paraded along the main street…
In recent years, around a million Poles have participated in these processions, including top figures from the government. The processions, as a rule, go through the centre of town. Their participants sing Christmas carols and happily greet passers-by and take pictures with them.
Mysterious inscriptions on doors
On 6th January, all Catholic churches hold a special holiday mass where priests consecrate chalk, incense and gold. Priests say that people these days rarely bring their jewellery into the church to be blessed, as gold is now out of fashion. The clergymen acquire chalk for parishioners on the eve of the holiday. Each participant in the mass returns home with white chalk and writes ‘K+M+B 2017’ or ‘C+M+B 2017’ on the outside of their front door.
The number denotes the year, but the letters have a few different interpretations. Priests insist that they need to write ‘C+M+B’, since those are the first letters of the phrase ‘Christus mansionem benedicat’ (Latin: ‘Christ blesses this house’). However, the so-called ‘people’s version’ caught on more – ‘K+M+B’. It is believed that the three kings who came to worship baby Jesus were named Kaspar (Casper), Melchior and Balthazar, and ‘K+M+B’ are their initials.
The tradition of writing these letters in chalk on doors emerged in the 18th century. Later, when the communist regime was in power, these letters were for many Poles a way of demonstrating their faith. It is well-known that the communists held the opinion that there is no God and aggressively spread atheism. Yet they were never able to convince the people of Poland. Known for their stubbornness, Poles ignored the statements of communist leaders and every year on 6th January wrote ‘K+M+B’ on their doors anyway.
The three kings – truth or myth?
Today, it’s impossible to give a definitive answer to this question. Saint Matthew, in his Gospel, wrote about ‘magi’, who came to visit the newborn Jesus from the East. This Greek word can be translated as sorcerers, wise men or magicians. Interestingly, nowhere in the Bible does it say that there were three of them.
The top Polish specialist on the three kings is Grzegorz Górny, who wrote the book The Three Kings: Ten Secrets. He proposes that the ‘magi’ came from Persia. This theory indirectly confirms one interesting historical fact. In the oldest iconographic images of the wise men arriving to worship Jesus, they are portrayed in Persian clothing. In the year 614, the Persians attacked the Holy Land and destroyed or looted many churches in Jerusalem. However, they did not touch the shrine of the Nativity, where they would have seen the image of the three magi in Persian robes.
Astronomy confirms the Nativity?
There is another interesting moment that Grzegorz Górny describes in his book. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the way to Jesus was shown to the three wise men by the brightest of stars. They saw it in the sky and went in its direction. To confirm this, Grzegorz Górny turned to specialists from the observatory at the oldest university in Poland – Jagiellonian University. They were able to generate a star map of the sky at that time.
Thanks to our knowledge of astronomy, we know that 2,000 years ago, in the constellation Pisces, there was a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. This phenomenon was discovered in 1603 by Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer and mathematician who discovered the laws of planetary motion. The two planets appeared very close to each other in the sky, virtually ‘merged’. This created the impression that a big, new star had appeared in the sky.
Apparently, the great conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter happens once every 400 years. It is possible the magi saw it. It shocked Kepler, who described it. Those of us with a clear sky got to see it on 21st December 2020, though most of us only got to see it over the Internet. However, if you find yourself in Poland on 6th January, you can see the colourful procession of the three kings, stop by the church to hear Christmas carols, take a piece of white chalk as a souvenir – and maybe write ‘K+M+B’ on your own door.
Originally written in Russian, 6 Jan 2017; translated by KA, Jan 2017; updated by AZ, Jan 2021
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Categories: Ethnic traditions