Throughout Hispanic culture there are widely celebrated events, many which are steeped in the Christian faith. One of the most significant days we celebrate as Latinos is El Día De Los Reyes (Three Kings Day), also known as the Epiphany. “El Día De Los Reyes is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ. In Western Christianity, the feast commemorates principally (but not solely) the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles. Eastern Christians commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, seen as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God.”
Below are various ways Three Kings Day is celebrated by Latinos:
In Argentina, the day is called “Día de los Reyes” (The Day of Kings), commemorating the arrival of the Magi to confirm Jesus as son of God. The night of January 5 into the morning of January 6 is known as “Noche de Reyes” (The Night of Kings) and children leave their shoes by the door, along with grass and water for the camels. In the morning of January 6, they get a present. On January 6, a “Rosca de Reyes” (a ring-shaped Epiphany cake) is eaten and all Christmas decorations are traditionally put away.
In Brazil, the day is called “Dia dos Reis” (The Day of Kings), commemorating the arrival of the Magi to confirm Jesus as son of God. The night of January 5 into the morning of January 6 is known as “Night of Kings” (also called the Twelfth Night) and is feasted with music, sweets and regional dishes as the last night of Nativity, when Christmas decorations are traditionally put away.
Celebrations in Guadeloupe have a different feel from elsewhere in the world. Epiphany here does not mean the last day of Christmas celebrations, but rather the first day of Kannaval (Carnival), which lasts until the evening before Ash Wednesday. Carnival in turn ends with the grand brilé Vaval, the burning of Vaval, the king of the Kannaval, amidst the cries and wails of the crowd.
The evening of January 5 marks the Twelfth Night of Christmas and is when the figurines of the three wise men are added to the nativity scene. Traditionally in Mexico, as with many other Latin American countries, Santa Claus doesn’t hold the cachet that he does in the United States. Rather, it is the three wise men who are the bearers of gifts, who leave presents in or near the shoes of small children. Mexican families also commemorate the date by eating Rosca de reyes. In modern Mexico however, and particularly in the larger cities and in the North, local traditions are now being observed and intertwined with the greater North American Santa Claus tradition, as well as with other holidays such as Halloween, due to Americanization via film and television, creating an economy of gifting tradition that spans from Christmas Day until January 6.
Peru shares Epiphany customs with Spain and the rest of Latin America. Peruvian national lore holds that Francisco Pizarro was the first to call Lima “Ciudad de los Reyes” (City of the Kings) because the date of the Epiphany coincided with the day he and his two companions searched for, and found, an ideal location for a new capital. Even more popular in Peru than gift giving is the custom of the Bajada de Reyes when parties are held in honor of the taking down of family and public nativity scenes, and carefully putting them away until the next Christmas.
In Portugal, Epiphany, January 6, is called dia dos Reis (Day of the Kings), during which the traditional Bolo Rei (King cake) is baked and eaten. Plays and pageants are popular on this day, and parents often hold parties for their children. Epiphany is also a time when the traditional Portuguese dances known as Mouriscadas and Paulitos are performed. The latter is an elaborate stick dance. The dancers, who are usually men but may be dressed as women, manipulate sticks or staves (in imitation swords) in two opposing lines. It is a tradition too in Portugal for people to gather in small groups and to go from house to house to sing the Reis (meaning “Kings”) which are traditional songs about the life of Jesus. The singers also bring greetings to the owners of the house. After singing for a while outside, they are invited in, and the owners of the house offer them sweets, liqueurs, and other Epiphany delicacies. These Reis usually begin on Epiphany eve and last until January 20.
In Puerto Rico, Epiphany is an important festive holiday, and is commonly referred as Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos, or Three Kings’ Day. It is traditional for children to fill a box with fresh grass or hay and put it underneath their bed, for the Wise Men’s camels. The three kings will then take the grass to feed the camels and will leave gifts under the bed as a reward. These traditions are analogous to the customs of children leaving mince pies and sherry out for Father Christmas in Western Europe or leaving milk and cookies for Santa Claus in the United States.
Spain and Latin America
In Spain and some Latin American countries, Epiphany day is called El Día de los Reyes (The Day of the Kings), i.e., the day when a group of Kings or Magi, as related in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, arrived to worship and bring three gifts to the baby Jesus after following a star in the heavens. This day is sometimes known as the Día de los Tres Reyes Magos (The day of the Three Royal Magi) or La Pascua de los Negros (Holy Day of the Black men) in Chile, although the latter is rarely heard. In Spanish tradition on January 6, three of the Kings: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar, representing Arabia, the Orient, and Africa, arrived on horse, camel and elephant, bringing respectively gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. Children (and many adults) polish and leave their shoes ready for the Kings’ presents before they go to bed on the eve of January 6. The next morning presents will appear under their shoes, or if the children are deemed to have misbehaved during the year, coal (usually a lump of hard sugar candy dyed black, called Carbón Dulce. Most towns in Spain arrange colorful parades representing the arrival of the Reyes Magos to town so children can see them in their camels or carriages before they go to bed. The oldest of this parades is held in Alcoy, Alicante – Alacant, Valencia, which has hosted an annual parade since 1885. Sweet wine, nibbles, fruit and milk are left for the Kings and their camels. In Spain, children typically receive presents on this day, rather than on Christmas, though this tradition has changed lately, and children now receive presents on both days. In Spain the Epiphany bread/cake is known as Roscón and in Mexico as Rosca de reyes.
In Louisiana, Epiphany is the beginning of the Carnival season, during which it is customary to bake King Cakes, similar to the Rosca mentioned above. It is round in shape, filled with cinnamon, glazed white, and coated in traditional carnival color sanding sugar. The person who finds the doll (or bean) must provide the next king cake. The interval between Epiphany and Mardi Gras is sometimes known as “king cake season”, and many may be consumed during this period. The Carnival season begins on King’s Day (Epiphany), and there are many traditions associated with that day in Louisiana and along the Catholic coasts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. King cakes are first sold then, Carnival krewes begin having their balls on that date, and the first New Orleans krewe parades in street cars that night.”
The older we get and the more Americanized we all become, the greater the likelihood that we will begin to lose our traditions that aren’t widely celebrated by the masses. If we are to keep these kinds of celebrations alive, we must learn of them from our elders and bring our children into the fold, introducing them to important traditions of our Latino experience.
Excerpts from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epiphany_(holiday)