Biblical Tradition Of Chalking The Door Reappears In England
The ancient Christian custom of “ chalking the door ” has Biblical origins, stemming from the Israelites tradition detailed in the Old Testament where they marked their doors with chalked symbols. Near the Epiphany feast, celebrating the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ, ancient Christians prayed for God’s blessing on their homes and they marked the door post with chalk. The Epiphanytide serves to protect Christian homes from evil spirits until the next Epiphany Day, at which time the doors were re-chalked. Now, the ancient Jewish and Christian tradition of chalking the door with mysterious letters and numbers, which was imported from central Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, is being resurrected across England. An article in The Telegraph says the modern marks are being called “Holy graffiti” and that the recent uptake reflects British folk “looking for a sense of community in a bid to lift spirits,” amid Covid-19 restrictions.
The tradition of chalking the door in Christianity refers to the Biblical Magi or the three wise men or the three kings: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. ( denissimonov / Adobe Stock)
The English Are Chalking The Door With Three Magi Symbols
Those English folk partaking in the ancient trend are chalking their door frames with the initials, C, M, and B, representing the Biblical Magi, better known as the three wise men, (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar). The three initials are often connected with Christian crosses, “plus symbols,” and in some cases the numerals of the New Year have been added. What’s more, while the letters C, M, and B represent the initials of the Magi they also stand for the Latin prayer-request “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” translated as “May Christ bless this house,” for example “20+C+M+B+21.”
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Seaford in East Sussex has become a hub of the ancient ritual and Reverend Arwen Folkes, the Rector of St Peter’s in East Blatchington, told The Telegraph that she has experienced a sharp rise in demand for the ritual since the Covid-19 lockdowns began last year. Folkes added that last year when she began offering the ritual to her parishioners “People did look at me slightly bemused,” but there is a “huge sense of relief, perhaps even joy, at seeing the way in which people have taken this blessing from the church to their own doorsteps,” Folkes added.
In ancient Scotland "chalking the door" referred to the practice of writing eviction notices, along with the deadline, in chalk on the renter's door. ( steheap / Adobe Stock)
But Chalking The Door In Scotland Meant Something Else
Around 50 houses in Seaford now have the ancient blessing marked on their doors and Folkes said it was “a lovely and significant tradition for us to embrace at a time of such worry and uncertainty.” Parishioners Kay and Keith Blackburn had their front door chalked and said the ritual was not only a lovely way to bless your house, but it makes one consider the role of the Three Kings. However, to leave this article thinking you know all about the history of chalking doors in “Britain,” you would be wrong, because what you have learned is the origin of the ritual in “England.”
According to the Dictionary of the Scottish Language , over the border in Scotland through the mid to late 1800s AD, “chalking the door” was a popular way of evicting residents. Rather than holy men writing the numbers of the New Year and the initials of the Magi, like we see in England today, the chalked dates in Scotland indicated the date the tenant had to vacate the property. When landlords desired to evict tenants, Scottish law dictated that at the landlord's request, in presence of witnesses, a burgh officer would chalk the primary door of the tenement “forty days before Whitsunday or St. Martin's Day.” The burgh officer recorded the event of the door being chalked and this document was signed by the officer and the witnesses. According to William Bell's 1837 AD book "Chalking of Door," tenants who failed to vacate by the chalked date, “could then be evicted on six days' notice via a so-called ‘charge’.”
Epiphany day home blessing tradition: Chalking the door with the three letters of the Biblical Magi: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. From another perspective, C, M, B also stands for: Christus Mansionem Benedicat or God Bless This House . ( vetre / Adobe Stock)
Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes
It is important to remember that symbols only make sense when interpreted in the overall and correct context. And in British history there were some major changes in attitude regarding symbols imported from other times and places.
Returning to England, according to the Church Times , the ancient Epiphany ceremony of chalking the door symbolizes “Christian willingness to offer hospitality and shelter to the Magi on their journey to Bethlehem,” but also, by extension in today’s world, serves as “a valuable link between church and home and family.”
Top image: A chalking the door example saying "Christ Bless this House" on the west face of the Church of St Michael in Welling, England, a tradition of the Epiphanytide. Source: Ethan Doyle White / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Ashley Cowie