For most communities in the United States, the Christmas season starts the day after Thanksgiving and ends on Christmas Day. But for Hispanics, there really are twelve (more) days of Christmas. They end the season with Three Kings Day traditions on January 6.
El Dia de los Reyes Magos is the celebration of Epiphany amongst Latinos in the U.S. and is based on similar celebrations throughout Latin America and the rest of the Catholic world.
Epiphany is the day that the Three Wise Men, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, visited the Baby Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Three Kings Day Traditions and the Birth of Christ
As a commemoration of the gift-giving, and as the end of the Christmas season, Three Kings Day is a celebratory time with many traditions, particularly amongst Latinos.
Many Three Kings Day traditions have their roots in the Biblical story of the birth of Christ.
As a child, the most exciting part of the day starts the night before, when they put out their shoes for the Three Wise Men to fill. Children also can’t forget to put out hay and grass, since camels get hungry.
This tradition is a lot like leaving milk and cookies for Santa. Waking up the morning, kids see the hay spread around, often leading in a trail to the presents that the Three Kings left them.
Rosca de Reyes
Another delicious tradition is called the Rosca de Reyes (Ring of kings). This sweet bread, shaped into a circle and topped with candied fruits, is meant to resemble the crowns worn by the Magi.
Baked inside the bread is a figure of a baby, representing the Baby Jesus who had to be hidden after his birth. Whoever gets the baby in their slice has to host a party before February 2, El Día de la Candelaria (Candlemas).
If you’ve been to Louisiana, you might know a second cousin of the Rosca de Reyes: king cake, which is also eaten during the Epiphany season and has a plastic baby baked inside.
This tradition of rosca de reyes came from Europe and is still present in a number of countries.
Variations in Three Kings Day Traditions
Since Three Kings Day traditions in the U.S. generally originate in Latin America, they can vary based on the country of origin. It can also be hard to celebrate some of them.
Traditionally, kids play with their toys all day on the 6th, much like others do with gifts received on Christmas Day. But since Three Kings Day isn’t generally a holiday in the U.S., children open their presents and then head out to school.
In cities with large Hispanic populations, in recent years it has become easier to find Three Kings Day celebrations. Parades, complete with the Wise Men themselves and even live animals, are becoming more common, such as the annual parade in East Harlem.
You might also find children’s activities such crown-making at museums and community centers in Latino areas. Even Disneyland has gotten in on the festivities.
So even if your family doesn’t usually celebrate Three Kings Day traditions, remember: There’s never a bad excuse to have a party – or to give gifts.