Epiphany > A feast fit for 3 kings

Three Kings from the East offered precious, symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus.

They arrived in Bethlehem not on the day of his birth, but 11 days later. This day is recognized on the Christian calendar as the Feast of Epiphany. In cultural revelry, January 6 is known as the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the grand finale of the Christmas season. The traditions of Epiphany, also called Three Kings Day, live on in places that were once Spanish colonies.

People from the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Mexico share their Epiphany customs of gift-giving and special foods, which they maintain to enrich their children’s sense of heritage and for the sheer fun of it.

Philippines > A nativity scene, called a belen, is the centerpiece of Christmas decorations in Filipino homes.

Maria Cielo Eugenio, remembers the excitement of waking on the morning of January 6  to find gifts for all the children near the belen, left in the night by the three kings during their journey. “Little children believe in this the way they believe in Santa,” Eugenio says. “The Kings are supposed to be rich, so they must leave gifts.”

There are three major islands in the Philippines, but there are 7,107 in all. Epiphany customs vary from island to island and from family to family.

Eugenio’s friend Myrlina Hunley from Visayas island recalls rearranging the figures of the three Kings in the belen on Epiphany to show them departing. Many of Eugenio’s friends left shoes, the bigger the better, on the windowsill for the three Kings to fill with gifts. Eugenio, a coordinator for classes on Philippine history and culture held at Our Lady of Lourdes, says the Philippines observe the longest Christmas celebration in the world.

In a nation that is 82 percent Catholic, Masses play a central role. Beginning December 16, people arise at 4 a.m. for nine days for Misa de Gallo, the aptly named Mass of the Rooster. Special foods are served to family and friends after the Masses. The midnight Mass of December 24 is followed by a big celebration at home. Fifteen or more dishes, such as chicken adobo, pancit bihon and leche flan, cover the table. Influenced by 40 years as an American colony, Filipino homes also receive a visit from Santa Claus.

On the morning of Christmas Day, another Mass is held. A grand family reunion follows at noon. Roast pig, called lechon, is the main dish. The Christmas tree and the decorative star lantern, a parol, stay up until Epiphany, or the Feast of Three Kings. Many of the dishes served on the Christmas table reappear at Epiphany.

Mexico > When Maria Garcia-Lara, was growing up in Guadalajara, Christmas was all about baby Jesus and going to church. The day of January 6, when the three wise men came, was a big celebration. Gifts were exchanged and family cooks would labor over traditional foods, such as a hearty soup called posole and time-consuming tamales.

Garcia-Lara’s mother prepares those dishes for Three Kings Day when she comes to visit. With two daughters, and a job in her family business, Mexico restaurant, Garcia-Lara doesn’t have time to prepare the traditional dishes herself. Garcia-Lara says her children enjoy the custom of the three Kings’ visit as well as Santa.

Mexican Epiphany celebrations also feature the Rosca de Reyes, or Kings’ bread. This crown-shaped bread with icing contains Christmas figures inside, including the baby Jesus.

“The person who got the Jesus figure from the Epiphany bread would do a rosary [gathering] in the house on February 2, Candelaria” Garcia-Lara said. Candelaria feasts feature tamales and Mexican hot chocolate. Candelaria, or Candlemass, often falls on the same day as Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, the last day in the church calendar before the season of Lent.

Many bakeries and groceries stock Kings’ cake, a close relative of Rosca de Reyes, often sprinkled with sugar dyed the festive green, purple and gold colors of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras festivities. Home cooks wishing to involve children in making Kings’ bread will find a recipe at http://pbskids.org/zoom/activities/cafe/threekingsbread.html.

Puerto Rico > Going out into the yard to cut grass to place in a shoebox under the bed along with a bowl of water was an annual January 5 ritual for Ana Guerrero and her now-adult son. He knew the camels bearing the three Kings would pass by and probably be hungry from their long journey.

“We didn’t leave cookies like we do for Santa,” Guerrero said. The Kings would have to do without. As a child in Puerto Rico, Guerrero, received presents from Santa on Christmas and toys on Three Kings Day.

“I remember the year I got a dollhouse and I thought I had seen the Kings [in my room],” recalled Guerrero. Often, there would be a trail of grass blades from the child’s bed to a doorway, showing the Kings’ path in and out of the house. “When I got a little older, and a little wiser, the Kings would bring school supplies.”

In Puerto Rico, the menu for Three Kings Day repeated Christmas favorites, such as roast pig and pasteles, which is a mix of pork, chickpeas, raisins and almonds enclosed in a masa of plantain, taro root, milk and salt.

Using a cookbook she received as a gift in 1962, Guerrero recently got together with two friends to make pasteles for the first time. Carols played as they worked in the kitchen, but it was a different experience from Christmas baking, she says. “It was more homey, more Latin, not sugary.”