In Latin America and Spain, the Three Kings Day or Día de los Reyes Magos is one of the most important holidays of the year. Celebrated every January 6, originally known as Epiphany and historically observed by Christians, the tradition commemorates the visit of the magi or wise men, Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, to baby Jesus.
According to the belief, the three wise men traveled from the East guided by a star to Bethlehem (hence the name of Bethlehem’s star) to pay tribute to Christ child and deliver the gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh, symbols of wealth. The tradition of turning the Epiphany into a children’s celebration began in Spain in the nineteenth century and the idea was to give gifts to children and imitate what was done in other countries on Christmas Day, where the main character is Santa Claus. In 1866 the first parade of Three Wise Men was held in Alcoy, and from there the tradition extended to countries of Hispanic culture.
In contrast to Latin American countries where kids get the best gifts on Día de los Reyes Magos instead of on Christmas Day, for the Hispanic community living in the United States keeping this tradition alive can be challenging. With mainstream media bombarding information about Santa Claus and the popularization of his image through songs, movies, cartoons, toys and more, Latinx parents instill the culture and explain to their kids to not only focus on Father Christmas as the only figure that gives gifts to well-behaved children but also wait for the arrival of the Three Kings with the same joy and illusion.
Although this tradition is venerated equally, each culture has adapted the holiday based on their customs. For example, Dominicans kids wake up early and open their presents to later spend the evening in their grandparent’s house or in family gatherings while playing with neighbors and cousins, while Mexican families congregate to cut a Rosca de Reyes, a large oval-shaped fruit cake that is filled with several little plastic dolls, to represent baby Jesus. If your piece of Rosca contains a doll the person is responsible for hosting a party with tamales on February 2, the Día de la Candelaria.
Puerto Ricans start the celebration with Víspera de Reyes, or Three Kings Eve (January 5th), where children usually collect grass or hay in a box, as a gift for the camels — the transportation Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar use to ferry from house to house. For Argentinians, Paraguayans, and Uruguayans the tradition is similar to Puerto Rico, but the kids leave a clean shoe by the door, plus grass and water for the camels.
Peruvians celebrate with the Bajada de los Reyes and Brazilians with the Folia de los Reyes Magos, a parade where people offer food and other donations in the name of Jesus. The people from Bolivia traditionally take their nativity mangers to the church and Guatemalans also cut a Rosca de Reyes but kids rarely receive presents.
Costa Ricans pray to baby Jesus during this day and Nicaraguans celebrate the Solemnidad de la Epifanía del Señor with a liturgical ritual. Colombians take this day to disassemble the Christmas tree and remove all Christmas decorations because it is considered the last day of the Christmas season.
Having so many variants, there is no doubt about how important it is for Latin Americans to make the Three Kings Day part of their unique culture; therefore we asked our Instagram followers how they and their familias would be celebrating el Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos in the United States and to tell us about their childhood memories.
Instagram user @the4grows wrote: “My husband is from Spain. We make a paella and when the kids were little they got 3 gifts.”
“YAS! My family (boricua) has always made an effort to celebrate Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos. It has been a little tough in the [United] States and in an area with a lot of people who don’t celebrate/are aware/etc., the holiday, but I’m so glad my parents taught us to do so,” wrote @nc_field.
“I love this! I’m Mexican and half Cuban,” said @robyn_rod. “I never celebrated this as a child but my husband’s family did a small intimate dinner every year and it was such a nice tradition to wrap up the holiday season and start the New Year with family. I’m divorced now, but I have made this tradition my own and tell everyone about it. Last year, instead of Xmas gifts, I made pozole and took it to the office to educate others about this day. They loved it!”
Nathalia Palis even went the extra mile and wrote a song about our Latinx traditions while user @corazonmioboutique also received great gifts during this holiday. “Yes! As a matter of fact, Los Reyes bring better gifts than Santa!” she revealed. “They come every year! I like the idea of Los Reyes, I can tie it together with Christmas and the Nativity when I’m explaining the meaning of Christmas to my kids. Santa como que sale sobrando. He doesn’t fit into the story,” she jokes.
For @having_fun_in_az the holiday has a deeper connection in her family. “I was born in El Salvador and then raised in [Washington] D.C. At the age of 28, I moved to AZ, married, had two kids with un Americano (An American). Both my younger brother and my son have the same amazing middle name: BALTAZAR! That’s my dad’s first name,” she revealed to BELatina. “He was named after Los Reyes Magos from his family’s Catholic faith. So ever since my kids were little, they’ve known about them, who and the why but most importantly because of the great man he was named after. And how special his unique name truly is!”
Others like @bbwgeneration, remember the celebration with sorrow after experiencing hardships that restrain them from creating beautiful memories. “It was a difficult one as my children and I were too poor and homeless for me to share these traditions. We had no family to help fill in with the tradition and in a non-Latino community with no means for transportation truly blocked these traditions,” she wrote. “I made the decision that I didn’t have to explain to them, ‘You are GREAT little humans but there’s no gift for you or parties because I don’t have the money.’ Thankfully their teachers, after school programs and community leaders took notice of our situation and each year they knew what kindness and community truly mean.”
In the end, just like Christmas, what matters the most during this holiday is not only to keep traditions alive and make our kids happy with presents, but also spend quality time with our families and as our previous Instagram friend wrote, touch our hearts and help those in need from the kindness of our hearts, always extend a helping hand to our community. Felíz Día de los Reyes Magos!