Christmas celebrants realize that the holiday season does not end on December 26 or even January 2. For many people, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are merely a prelude to the real celebration to come on Three Kings Day.
Three Kings Day, or Día de los Très Reyes, is celebrated on January 6 to honour the wise men who visited and brought gifts to Jesus Christ. Also known as the Epiphany, the holiday marks the end of the Christmas season for many practicing Christians.
Very little is known about the kings, or magi. These kings, who are only mentioned once in the Gospel of Matthew, are never named. The story says they hail from the “east” and are guided to the manger by a mysterious light in the sky. They begin a journey to bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn king. Unbeknownst to many, the popular song “The 12 Days of Christmas” actually marks the 12 days following Christmas, ending on the Feast of the Epiphany, and not the 12 days preceding Christmas Day.
Many traditions are associated with the Epiphany. Celebrants in Mexico serve Rosca de Reyes, an oval-shaped cake that symbolizes a crown. The cake has a small doll inside that represents baby Jesus and the hiding of Jesus from King Herod’s troops. Herod ordered his soldiers to seek out and murder all male infants born in Bethlehem in retaliation of the prophecy that a messiah would come and become the new King of Jerusalem.
Roscas can be made with dried and candied fruits to symbolize the jewels that adorn real crowns. Whoever receives the plastic doll in his or her slice of cake is expected to throw a party on Diá de la Candelaria (Candlemas Day), which occurs each year on February 2.
Unlike in the Canada and the U.S., where gifts are typically exchanged on Christmas Day, much of the Latin community exchange gifts on the eve of January 6. Puerto Rican children have been known to gather grass or straw in shoeboxes for the kings’ horses or camels. Some families display carvings and artwork of the three magi atop camels.
Many celebrants participate in Three Kings Day parades and festivals. Family gatherings and parties that would rival other special holidays are common as well. A special meal consisting of corn tamales and hot chocolate may be served, while others may enjoy black beans, picadillo and yucca.
Who were the kings?
While the Bible does not indicate how many kings visited Jesus on the Epiphany, based on the number of gifts offered, historians believe there were three. Historians and theologians believe these kings were Babylonians, Persians or Jews from Yemen. In the Western Christian church, the kings go by the names of Melchior (a Persian scholar), Caspar (an Indian scholar) and Balthazar (an Arabian scholar). The kings also were said to have distinct physical characteristics. Caspar, who brought the gift of gold, was the oldest and sported a long, white beard. Middle-aged Melchior brought the gift of frankincense, while Balthazar, who brought myrrh, is believed to have been a dark-skinned young man around the age of 20. Metro