Custom survived: Chalking on Epiphany Eve

Standard

At the local catholic church I noticed at the mass before Twelfth night that they would be blessing chalk and handing it out to the congregation. Why is this you may ask? Well the church as does many across the Christian world – Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox continue a curious custom which has its roots deep within the superstitious world of the medieval mind.

At the chalk face

The custom appears to have originated in central Europe at the end of the middle ages and spread. When it first arrived in Britain is unclear and indeed it is equally unclear how long as a custom it has been undertaken but a cursory check online would suggest it is fairly widespread from Paisley to Plymouth.

When and actually what is done varies in some places it would be done on New Year’s Day, but more commonly it would be done on the more traditional Feast of the Epiphany. Indeed, as noted in the introduction it would take place after the Epiphany Mass when blessed chalk would be taken home for it to be done at home by either a priest or more often the father of the family.

Chalk and talk

The chalking the doors follows the following formula for the ritual; over a door would be written for 2020 for example:

20 + C+M + B + 20.

The numbers refer to the year but what do the letters refer to? Like many religious activities it has two meanings. Firstly C M and B are the initials of the first names of the Magi who visited Jesus on Twelfth Night, Caspar, Malchior, and Balthazar. But also they mean:

Christus mansionem benedicat

A Latin phrase meaning:

 “May Christ bless the house.”

The “+” signs represent the cross.

The purpose of the chalking those is to request the house is blessed by Christ and this good will is taken for the rest of the year and secondly that it shows those passing of the family’s faith and welcoming nature. Sometimes the custom is simply chalking but it some causes holy water is used and prayers said

Chalk it up

What is particularly interesting is that the custom is a widespread survival of a much more curious lost custom; that of making ‘witch marks’ or ‘apotropaic’ marks to protect the house and its occupants from evil forces. The carving of sunwheels, Marian symbols, pentagrams, etc can be found on entrances or exits of old houses across Britain. By doing so it prevented the evil spirits from entering and protect and bless the house. Chalking the door is the only survival as far as can be ascertained of this custom and as such is of considerable interest.

Traditionally the blessing is done by either a priest or the father of the family. This blessing can be performed simply by just writing the inscription and offering a short prayer, or more elaborately, including songs, prayers, processions, the burning of incense, and the sprinkling of holy water. An example below being given:

Prayer:

On entering the home,

Leader(Priest, if present, or father of the family) : Peace be to this house.
All: And to all who dwell herein.

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

All Pray: The Magnificat. During the Magnificat, the room is sprinkled with holy water and incensed. After this is completed,

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

Leader: Our Father. . .
And lead us not into temptation

All: But deliver us from evil.
Leader: All they from Saba shall come
All: Bringing gold and frankincense.
Leader: O Lord, hear my prayer.
All: And let my cry come to You.

Leader: Let us pray. O God, who by the guidance of a star didst on this day manifest Thine only-begotten Son to the Gentiles, mercifully grant that we who know Thee by faith may also attain the vision of Thy glorious majesty. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

Leader: Be enlightened, be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee—Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary.

All: And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light and kings in the splendor of thy rising, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon thee.

Leader: Let us pray.
Bless, + O Lord God almighty, this home, that in it there may be health, purity, the strength of victory, humility, goodness and mercy, the fulfillment of Thy law, the thanksgiving to God the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. And may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

After the prayers of the blessing are recited, each room of the home is sprinkled with Epiphany water and incensed. The initials of the Magi are inscribed upon the doors with the blessed chalk. (The initials, C, M, B, can also be interpreted as the Latin phrase “Christus mansionem benedicat” which means “Christ bless this house”.)

Example: 20 + C + M + B + 20 

Another possible prayer to say during your Chalking:

May all who come to our home this year rejoice to find Christ living among us; and may we seek and serve, in everyone we meet, that same Jesus who is your incarnate Word, now and forever. Amen.

God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only-begotten One to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill us with the light of Christ, that our concern for others may reflect your love. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Loving God, bless this household. May we be blessed with health, goodness of heart, gentleness, and abiding in your will. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.”

It appears that the custom is in some sort of revival of interest. It is described in St Asaphs, Wales,  St Paul’s Wokingham, St Giles Matlock and St Mary’s Hardwick, Derbyshire. An account from the COE website states how the custom can fall again into abeyance often to do with the views of the incumbent:

This used to be an annual feature of the Epiphany ceremonies conducted by the Revd Brian Brindley of Holy Trinity, Reading, who was something of a dramatist in liturgical matters.

The idea was that the members of the congregation took home a blessed piece of chalk, and also a piece of black paper, on which they were asked to write the traditional names of the three Wise Men. This was taken home and attached to the front door of one’s house in order be identified with the aim of the pilgrimage of the kings.”

Interestingly, in the 1800s custom appears to have become secularised if this account is any suggestion:

“At Skipsea, in Holderness, Yorkshire, the young men gather together at twelve o’clock on New Year’s Eve, and, after blackening their faces and otherwise disguising them- selves, they pass through the village, each having a piece of chalk. With this chalk they mark the gates, doors, shutters, and waggons with the date of the new year. It is considered lucky to have one’s house so dated, and no attempt is ever made to disturb the youths in the execution of their frolic.”

Such secular exuberance appears to have died out but its religious observance continues.

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