Like so many other religious and cultural holidays, Los Reyes Magos or Three Kings Day is fast becoming popularized as a commercialized holiday, so much so even mainstream big box stores now carry the holiday bread rosca de reyes and theme parks now present Three Kings Day celebrations each year.
But for millions of Orthodox Christians around the world, Three Kings Day is the holiest of days and the holiday season isn’t over until after Three Kings Day on Jan. 6 — the Day of the Epiphany, which for them is the true day to celebrate Christmas.
The Day of the Epiphany is the actual day when the Three Wise Men — Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar — arrived in Jerusalem following a star and found the new born king following his birth. Millions here in Los Angeles, and around the world, will celebrate Christmas after many others have already begun the New Year.
For countries including Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Belarus, Serbia, Egypt, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan, Friday, Jan. 6, is Christmas Eve. The difference is due to how Catholic and Orthodox Christians use different religious calendars to mark their holy days. For Gregorian calendar Christians, Jan. 6 marks the Day of the Epiphany as the day which celebrates the revelation of God in human form as Jesus. Starting on Jan. 6, Orthodox Eastern European Christians traditionally fast until the appearance of the first star in the night sky, symbolizing the birth of Jesus.
The religious holiday is celebrated uniquely in various communities.
In Latino communities, bakeries have been busily baking traditional rosca de reyes bread, which is formed in a circle to symbolize the Wise Men’s search. The dried and candied fruits that adorn the top of the bread symbolize the crowns of the kings, while the traditional baby figurines placed inside the bread represent Baby Jesus.
At family gatherings, the person who gets the slice of bread with the baby figurine is responsible for holding a party with tamales and atole on Feb. 2, which is the feast day for Our Lady of Candelaria.
For those who celebrate both Christmas and Three Kings Day, a final gift is given and a few extra shopping days. While the tradition to see who got the slice of bread with the baby figurine is a fun tradition, the rosca de reyes bread is intended to remind believers that the darkness and bitterness of King Herod, who ordered the “massacre of the innocents” during the time of Jesus’ birth, can be turned into light and sweetness.