On the 12th day of Christmas came the 3 Kings

Hispanics gather to share gifts, traditions on January 6. Santa is on vacation, and Christmas trees are getting recycled. The ball has dropped, it’s been almost a week since you had that toast to 2007.

But the holidays aren’t over yet, not if you’re Hispanic. Celebrations continue until January 6, Three Kings Day or El Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos, when the Three Wise Men pay their annual visit and leave gifts for good boys and girls.

According to Christian lore, the Three Wise Men were astronomers who had witnessed from the birth of a star rising over the town of Bethlehem, which foretold of the birth of a great King. They set out to travel toward the light, riding camels until they reached the town and the manger where Jesus was born.  

Before setting off on their journey, King Herod requested that these three wise men inform him on their return of the child’s location. But after paying their respects, an angel appeared to tell them that Herod planned on killing the infant. So instead, the Kings took another way home, avoiding Herod. The Three Kings were also known as the Magi Saints. They gave the baby Jesus gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense.

For children in Hispanic nations such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico, Three Kings Day is the day they receive holiday presents. On the night of January 5, children gather up the freshest grass they can find in their back yards, stash it all in a small shoebox with a wish list and place it underneath their beds. When they wake up the next morning, the camels have eaten the hay and have left gifts in appreciation.

“I still celebrate the tradition even if I live and work far away from home,” said Vanessa Fernandez. “I remember being a young girl in Puerto Rico, picking out the greenest grass, serving some water in a bowl for the camels to drink if they were thirsty, and just waiting for all those gifts Santa Claus had forgotten to bring me. It’s a beautiful illusion you have as a child that you always keep fond memories of.”

Fernandez mentioned that sometimes it’s tough to celebrate because she usually has to work or run errands on a day when people traditionally gather to celebrate with family.

“I always spread the message though,” Fernandez said. “I give small gifts, I talk about the holiday, and make sure to still have my grass ready. I will always remember receiving a bike one time when I was young, and recall the excitement of waking up early to see what the reyes (kings) had brought me. Hey, for kids, it’s an excuse to get more gifts. Who doesn’t enjoy that? Plus, then come the octavitas.”

The octavitas, meaning the eights, represent the eight days after the arrival of the Three Kings, and all the festivities that occur during that time. Families prepare feasts, gather to sing traditional “parrandas”, caroling surprised neighbors, in honor of the baby Jesus, and make sure they keep the holiday spirit alive through January 14.

“I love the octavitas,” said Laurie Basora of Puerto Rico. “They always make fun of us Puerto Ricans because it’s like we never stop celebrating Christmas. It’s mid-January, and we still have our lights and tree up, drink coquito,” a drink very similar to eggnog, “and exchange small gifts when reyes arrive on January 6.”

Among the many fond memories Basora has of the holiday, she recalls being a young girl who always wanted to have her shoebox filled to the brim with grass, just to make sure the camels had enough food to eat.

“Mom would tell me I had to feed the camels well, or else I wouldn’t get any presents,” Basora said. Basora mentioned she still leaves the camels grass on January 5. “You never know,” she said with a laugh.

The Three Kings are known for having a “smaller workshop” than Santa Claus, so gifts usually consist of inexpensive CDs, dolls, gift cards, candy, books or, if older, a bottle of good wine. The most expensive gift a child could receive? A brand new bicycle, representing the lengthy journey the Magi endured.

“I celebrated Three Kings Day in Mexico all through my childhood,” said Marta Santamaria, of Guerrero, Mexico, who now lives in Wahneta, Fla. “The gifts were always modest, but everyone just has so much fun.”

Santamaria mentioned that to celebrate the day, which is more popular than Christmas, Wahneta residents often hold a Tres Reyes Magos parade, where gifts are handed out to children.

“Once I moved over here, the tradition has been lost, and we don’t really celebrate it as much because we’re always working hard,” Santamaria said. “But it’s something I hold dear in my heart.”

Kriselda Torres, a native Mexican who still celebrates the holiday with her family and mostly loves digging into the traditional rosca de reyes.

“It’s a roll of warm bread served on January 6,” Torres said. “It is split between all the family members, and hidden inside is a plastic figurine representing the wise men. The person that receives the figurine once the bread is split has to host a family party, known as Candelaria, by cooking a traditional feast, such as tamales, on February 2.”