Doesn’t it seem like once the calendar year begins, the Christmas and holiday season ends? Well, it may look like that to the secular world but we Catholics know better. There are many Epiphany traditions that one can partake in at the end of the twelve days of Christmas. For some people, Epiphany signals the end of the Christmas season when the tree and decorations are brought down. For many Hispanic and Latin American countries (especially those who are/were traditionally Catholic), this Dia de Los Reyes Magos is only the beginning.
What is Dia de los Reyes Magos?
Translated literally, it is the “Day of the Magi Kings.” On this day, we celebrate the day the Three Wise Men arrived to venerate the child Jesus. There are parades celebrating and reenacting the Wise Men’s arrival. Gifts are exchanged, the famous Rosca de Reyes is consumed, and there is an electrifying energy that is felt throughout the day.
Parades, Gifts, and Wishes
To say this day is highly celebrated is an understatement. In Spain and Mexico, Dia de Los Reyes Magos brings out more lively celebrations than Christmas Day which is more solemnly celebrated. Instead of waiting for baby Jesus, St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus to bring people their gifts, they wait for the Wise Men to bring them their holiday presents and have their holiday gift exchange.
In various Spanish-speaking countries, children place their shoes either under their bed or on their windowsills the night before, hoping to get a gift from the Wise Men; a custom akin to the one done for the feast of St. Nicholas. The only difference is that children also leave out hay or other herbs for the camels and/or horses – the animals differ in different countries – of the Wise Men to eat when they’ve visited their homes. Children in Puerto Rico are also known to leave bowls of water for the Wise Men’s horses to drink.
In Spain, there is the Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos (the Three Kings Parade) in which the arrival of the Wise Men is reenacted by having actors (portraying the Wise Men) make their way to the location of a live Nativity scene. The “Wise Men” arrive either on horses or floats from which they grow candy and other treats for the children who are lined up in the streets. This parade is one of the oldest and largest in Spain, dating back to 1885 and rivaling only the processions done during Holy Week.
In parts of Mexico, similar parades are also done though perhaps not as big as the Spaniards’ parades. Children also celebrate by writing letters to the Wise Men and attaching them to helium-filled balloons, which they then release in hopes that the Wise Men will grant them their wishes for the year.
Symbolism Behind the Famous Roscon de Reyes
In Mexico, a plastic baby is baked into the cake symbolizing the child Jesus hiding from Herod during the massacre of the Holy Innocents. Whoever finds the plastic baby (or babies) in the cake must pay for the feast of tamales and atole to be celebrated on el Dia de la Calendaria (known to English-speakers as Candlemas).
For breakfast, a Roscon (also called a Rosca in some countries) de Reyes is consumed. This ring-shaped cake is typically decorated with powdered sugar and various candies and fruits to represent the various jewels that adorned the Wise Men’s garments. Inside of these cakes are also baked an assortment of objects with various meanings, depending on the country and cultural traditions.
In Spain, a fava bean is also baked into the cake along with the “small king.” Whoever finds the plastic figurine get to be the “king” or “queen” for the day. Whoever finds the bean has to pay for the cake the following year.
If you’re fortunate enough to live in a city or a town where there are hints of Dia de Los Reyes Magos celebrations, you should not miss out. Whether it it’s buying your own Rosca (Kings’ Cake) from a local Hispanic or Latin American bakery or whether you incorporate gift-giving as a family tradition, it is a good opportunity to teach your children more about their faith while keeping the Christmas celebrations going.