By Dawn X. Spectre for xpatradio.mx
Epiphany, as it is known in English-speaking countries, has been celebrated on the sixth day of January since the end of the second century, even before the holiday of Christmas was established. Like other Christian celebrations, the church appropriated Epiphany from a pagan festival. As early as 1996 BCE, the Egyptians celebrated the winter solstice with a tribute to a Virgin, which occurred on what would have been January 5-6 in pre-Gregorian calendar times.
Today however, in some households in Mexico and other Latin communities, children anxiously await the sixth day of January known also as: Day of the Holy Kings or Día de Los Trés Reyes, Día de los Santos Reyes or Dia de los Trés Magi; the day that they will receive presents.
As purported in the New Testament (Matthew 2.1-12) on this day, after following a bright star (a signal from God) Three Kings or Wise men, arrived at Jesus’ birthing barn in Bethlehem to bestow gifts upon Jesus, whom they officially recognized as God’s earthly son. At the time this was considered more significant than the day of Jesus’ birth, since the Kings represented the first non-Jewish acknowledgement that Jesus was the son of God.
The three Kings: Melchior of Europe, Caspar of Arabia, and Balthazar of Africa, symbolized Jesus’ divine sovereignty for people of all nations and races. In honor of Jesus’ arrival as God’s earthly representative, the Kings brought gifts including gold, symbolic of Jesus’ regal status as “King of the Jews”, frankincense representing Jesus’ divine Kingship, and myrrh, a symbol of Jesus’ mortality.
Before bedtime on January 5th, the Eve of Three Kings’ Day (La Víspera de Reyes) children in Mexico and other Latin communities,fill a box or old shoes with straw, then place them in the nativity scene along with their gift wish-list. Lacking a crèche, they place it under the Christmas tree or under their bed. On the morning of January 6th, the straw will have been ‘eaten’ by the ‘camels’ who have come bearing the Kings and the children’s gifts.
Day of the Holy Kings is family and friend-oriented, with get-togethers revolving around eating tamales, drinking champurrado and sharing of a traditional cake known as Rosca de Reyes. Even in beautiful sunny Baja California Sur, desert evenings during Christmas and New Years can get chilly and these hot and sweet accoutrements impart a festive fireside-at-the-chalet atmosphere. Champurrado is a chocolate variation of atole — a warm, thick Mexican beverage, prepared with a base of masa de corn, panela sugar, and hot milk.
Rosca de Reyes is a crown shaped cake, decorated with candied fruit, traditionally eaten at Epiphany celebrations. Hidden inside the cake is a figurine which represents Jesus hiding from King Herod’s troops. By tradition, whoever finds the figurine in their piece of Rosca de Reyes cake is obliged to host a party on February 2nd, the Día de Candelaria, or Candlemas Day, providing tamales and champurrado to all their guests.
Considered the second part of Epiphany, Candlemas occurs 40 days after Jesus’ birth, when according to Jewish custom, Jesus’ Mother (the Virgin Mary) was no longer ‘unclean’ and could travel to the nearest temple, to have Jesus blessed.
Notably, the second of February also marks the mid-way point between winter solstice and spring equinox and has long been thought to be a predictor of the spring weather to come.
During the holiday season in Mexico, elaborate public nativity scenes are displayed on lawns and in public parks and plazas, as well as in homes. Most often, miniature to life-sized figurines are placed within the nativity scene, but occasionally they feature live participants. The crèche includes a roof, a symbol of the guiding star, Jesus’ parents and shepherds, and beasts of burden, as well as the manger, which remains empty until Christmas Eve when a baby doll representing Jesus is placed there. The Three Kings may also be included initially or placed within the crèche on the 6th of January. The nativity scene remains on display until after the Three Kings Day, or even until Candlemas.
El Día de los Reyes is celebrated in Latin communities worldwide with huge public events, parades, and simple at-home gatherings. In Mexico City, tens of thousands arrive in El Centro for a piece of the 1.2 mile-long Rosca de Reyes, weighing in at about 9.5 tons. This enormous cake is made with the usual ingredients, and more than 43,000 eggs.
2017 marks the fortieth year of the amazing El Museo del Barrio’s Annual Three Kings Day in New York City; an extravagant public event with elaborate parades and entertainment. Even Disneyland offers performances by the Grammy winning ‘Mariachi Divas’ and the Ballet Folklorico Dancers, in celebration of Three Kings Day.
Day of the Holy Kings is a religious observance,but not a federal public holiday in Mexico. On January 6th, access to streets in some cities and towns may be difficult due to Día de los Reyes-related festivities.