A new year has just begun, thus ending the Christmas holidays. Now, you might still be full of all the delicious food you ate on Christmas and New Year’s, but in Latin America and Spain, the festivities aren’t over, and the celebrations continue until the Feast of the Epiphany or “Día de Reyes,” as it’s best known. The festivity celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men (in some cultures often called Kings or Magi) to Bethlehem to adore baby Jesus and recognize him as the true King of the Jews. To do so, the story says they gave him three wishes, and in that fashion, in Latin America and Spain, the Three Wise Men are the ones who bring children the important presents during the Christmas season. Here’s what you need to know about this traditional festivity and the importance it has in Hispanic cultures.
Adoration of the Magi – Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1655 – 1660)
Who are they?
The only part of the canonic Bible where the Three Wise Men appear is in the Gospel of Matthew. Here we’re told that the Wise Men (it never clarifies how many they were, but it’s been deduced there were three due to the number of gifts they brought) learned about the birth of the Messiah and follow the star of Bethlehem to reach him, which is why they appeared twelve days after his birth. Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar brought Baby Jesus three presents to recognize him as the true king.
One of them offered him gold as a symbol of the material riches proper of a king. The other brought frankincense to recognize him not as any old king, but rather appealing to his divine nature as the son of God. Finally, the third gave him myrrh, a resin used at the time in mortuary rites. This symbolized Jesus’s mortality and his role in God’s plan to save us from our sins. In other versions, the myrrh also represents the oil used to anoint Kings.
They’re supposed to represent the three ages of men, so Caspar is the old one, always represented with a white beard; Melchior, the middle-aged one, generally portrayed with red hair and a beard; and Balthazar, a young man in his twenties. In some traditions, they also represent Europe, Arabia, and Africa, and thus the world’s acceptance of Jesus as the son of God, and the representation of the “true” religion.
The Adoration of the Magi – Gerard David (c. 1515)
How is it celebrated?
The Epiphany is celebrated in almost every Catholic country in the world. However, in Latin America and Spain, “Día de Reyes” might be one of the biggest celebrations of the Christmas season. It begins on the night of January 5th, when children put their letters to the Wise Men in a shoe right under the Christmas tree.
The next day, on Epiphany Day, families gather together to eat a delicious “roscón,” “rosca de reyes,” or King’s Cake, a sweet bread in the shape of a wreath that symbolizes a crown. It’s adorned with dried red and green fruit, some nuts, and sugar to represent the crown’s gems. But perhaps the most important thing about the “rosca,” is the small plastic or clay Baby Jesus figurine hidden inside the bread. This represents how Baby Jesus was kept hidden from King Herod’s troops after it was proclaimed that a new King would be born and dethrone him.
According to tradition, each member of the family has to cut a slice of the “rosca,” and the one that gets the Jesus figurine has to throw a party on February 2, which is Candlemas (the celebration of the presentation of Jesus at the temple). In Mexico, for instance, instead of a party, those who get the figurine have to buy tamales for everybody on Candlemas, among other customs like getting a dress for the Jesus figurine you put in the Nativity scene on Christmas.
The Adoration of the Magi – Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1515)
Last but not least, perhaps what makes of this festivity so special in these countries is that it’s the day when children receive the most presents. After they leave their letter in a shoe, they leave food and water for the Wise Men and their animals (a camel, an elephant, and a horse). The next day, everybody wakes up to see what they got, and what inspiring message they left for them. In some countries, each king brings a particular type of present: one might bring candy, another a toy, and the other one clothing, or children might pick their favorite and ask only them for gifts. It depends on each family’s tradition as well, but what is true is that the Reyes are the most generous gift bringers of the season.
Adoration of the Magi – Albrecht Dürer (1504)
“Día de Reyes” ends the Christmas season, thus allowing us to finally start the new year. It’s also a celebration that brings families together by strengthening local traditions beyond religion. From people at the main parks and squares wanting to see the Three Wise Men, to presents, and eating the delicious “rosca” accompanied with a nice cup of hot cocoa, “Día de Reyes” is definitely one of the most important celebrations of all Hispanic traditions.
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Cover painting: The Adoration of the Magi – Hans Memling (1460 – 1470)