Soft laughter and the gentle clinking of silverware fill the air with festivity and cheer as slices of la rosca, a traditional candied fruit cake in the shape of a ring, are passed around. The pastry is unique in that one small, plastic baby Jesus doll is put into the dough prior to baking. According to tradition, the recipient of the slice with the figurine must host a potluck at their house during Dia de Candelaria, which is on Feb. 2. La Rosca de Tres Reyes, or Three King’s Bread, is made with flour, sugar, raisins and eggs and served during Dia de los Reyes Magos, a Catholic holiday that is celebrated by the Hispanic people on January 6. Despite its long history and importance in Catholic and Hispanic tradition, Dia de los Reyes Magos is not well-known among those who do not celebrate the holiday.
Dia de los Reyes Magos, known as the Epiphany to most Catholics, commemorates the three wise men who visited the newborn Jesus Christ with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gold represents Jesus’ royal status, the frankincense shows Jesus’ divinity and the myrrh, used as an embalming agent, foreshadows his immortality. At home and at church, children are taught about the timeless story of how “after Jesus was born” there were “[three] kings [who] were being guided by a star to find him,” according to Spanish teacher Viviana Alvarado-Gomez. “The parents make sure that the children know that the three kings were travelling to give baby Jesus the presents.”
In the past, the holiday usually included praying, singing, reading the story of the Three Wise Men out loud and going to the nacimiento, or Mexican nativity scene, which depicts the birth of Jesus Christ. These traditional religious practices have changed for Dia de los Reyes Magos but still remain today in the celebrations of the Epiphany, the non-Mexican Catholic holiday from which Dia de los Reyes Magos originates.
Today, Hispanics, especially those who live in the U.S., often incorporate Christmas-like traditions such as giving gifts in their celebrations of the holiday. Dia de los Reyes Magos borrows traditional practices from Christmas to create a new cultural combination of customs.
“So instead of celebrating Christmas, in most Spanish-speaking countries, they would celebrate Jesus’ birth on Christmas,” said Alvarado-Gomez. “But [the people celebrating Dia de los Reyes] normally don’t give presents, but that’s the way it used to be; now [gift-giving is] mixed in with the culture.”
One such practice that is modeled after a popular Christmas tradition involves leaving out cut grass and water for the three kings’ horses, camels and elephants to feed on after completing their long journey to see Jesus Christ; similarly, people who celebrate Christmas set out cookies and milk for Santa Claus. Another common tradition is moving the small figurines of the three kings in the nativity scenes closer to the manger of Jesus Christ with every consecutive day from Christmas until Dia de los Reyes Magos. Children also leave their shoes outside next to the door so that the three kings can fill them with small presents, like Christmas stockings that are hung over the fireplace for Santa Claus.
In addition, the holiday has changed by shifting its focus away from religion. The main purpose of Dia de los Reyes Magos in the U.S. and Hispanic countries is to spend time with family and friends. In the typical Hispanic community that emphasizes loyalty, caring, familial love and friendship, the holiday represents the culture’s most important values.
“I think because Hispanics are very close, and family is the biggest thing and we’re always together,” said Keila de la O (12), who has been celebrating Dia de los Reyes Magos her whole life. “Your family is your community because you’re so close to them.”
Dia de los Reyes Magos is an integral way to celebrate familial relationships and appreciate their significance and meaning in life.
Eating the rosca cake is de la O’s favorite part of the holiday because her family and friends gather to celebrate and eat the delicious, traditional fruit-cake together.
According to Alvarado-Gomez, “[Dia de los Reyes Magos is] a big deal compared to United States. It’s possible that a lot of people don’t know about this [holiday].”
Although Dia de los Reyes Magos is little-known in mainstream American culture, and de la O is different for celebrating it, she is proud of “being Hispanic [because it] has influenced who [she has] become and [her] beliefs.”
Similarly, Miguel Merida (10) has “never felt different for celebrating something that white people don’t [because he loves] where [he’s] from.”
Celebrating Dia de los Reyes Magos with his family and growing up in his community as a Hispanic are daily aspects of his multicultural life that Merida has “never felt ashamed [of].” Rather, Merida proudly embraces his Mexican-American identity becasue “being from Mexico” has formed “[his] roots and [he’ll] never cut them.”
De la O said that even though Dia de los Reyes Magos is “out there” compared to mainstream holidays she “grew up doing these things and [she has] always [had] a really fun time doing [and celebrating] it, and it’s really fun to compare [the holiday] to other cultures because some people have similar things that they do.”
Although it took a considerable amount of time for him to “embrace being Mexican-American,” Merida strongly feels that “celebrating Dia de los Reyes Magos slowly got easier” with the guidance of his siblings, who “showed [him] the right from wrong.”
The community that de la O grew up in and celebrated Dia de los Reyes Magos in, is comprised of her family and friends who provide “emotional support” to de la O. She knows that regardless of “anything and everything [my family and I are] always together.”
According to Merida, “the Mexican-American experience [involves] celebrating both cultures,” and that growing up in America as a Hispanic is “really cool because it’s a mix of cultures and different experiences,” though “people don’t celebrate [Dia de los Reyes Magos] as much in the U.S as they do in Mexico.”