Many people are already taking their dried Christmas tree outside and putting away decorations for another year. But for Christians, the holiday season is not yet over.
Millions around the world are now looking forward to Jan. 6, “El Día de los Reyes Magos” or Three Kings Day, a date that — like other celebrations — mixes food and religious tradition.
This is the date when Orthodox and Eastern Christians believe Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan. The Armenian Church celebrates the holy birth (Sourp Dznount) of Jesus Christ and his baptism by John the Baptist. This is commemorated through the “Blessing of the Water” ceremony after the Divine Liturgy.
For other countries including Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Belarus, Serbia, Egypt, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan, Jan. 6 is Christmas Eve. This is due to the fact that Catholic and Orthodox Christians use different religious calendars to mark their holy days.
Known also as the Epiphany, the holiday dates back to the 4th Century A.D., and marks the culmination of the 12 days of Christmas, the day when according to Christian tradition, the Three Wise Men—Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar—hailing from different areas of the world and guided by the Christmas Star arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense to the newly born BabyJesus.
Following this tradition, many families opt to exchange or give presents on this date instead of Dec. 25. In Spain and other Latin American countries, children write letters to the Magi instead of Santa Claus and leave their shoes outside the night before, much like stockings over the fire place on Christmas Eve. The shoes are stuffed with straw or hay for the Kings’ camels so the Magi can leave small gifts and sweets.
Pacoima resident Esperanza Islas is one who has followed this tradition ever since she was a child.
“The children write letters to the Three Kings and they go to sleep early on Jan. 5 so they can open the gifts on Jan. 6,” said the mother of three children.
She usually gives presents to her children on both Christmas and Three Kings Day.
“We do it to keep the traditions alive and teach our kids,” she said.
“Rosca De Reyes”
The main part of the Three Kings Day celebration is the Rosca de Reyes (Kings Bread)—an oval-shaped sweet bread with colorful dried fruit resembling jewels on a crown.
Islas said her children love to eat the Rosca.
The bread comes with small figurines of Baby Jesus baked inside, dipicting Joseph and Mary’s hiding of their newborn baby as they fled Israel for Egypt to escape King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents.
Families gather to enjoy the Rosca, with each person taking a piece of the bread; whoever finds the small Baby Jesus figurine is believed to have a blessed and fortunate year, and is supposed to host a dinner of tamales on Feb. 2, the Day of the Candelaria.
The date commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple of Jerusalem 40 days after his birth.It is also known as Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Feast of the Holy Encounter.
In Mexico, the tamales associated with the celebration have their roots in pre-Columbian rituals. On this date, pre-Hispanic people asked their gods Chalchiuhtlicue, Tlaloc and the Tlaloques for rain and good harvest by offering maize, corn, and tamales to them.
Finding a Rosca de Reyes used to be a difficult task. But as more immigrants have brought their traditions to the United States, many Latino bakeries and even big box stores now offer the bread — sometimes many days before Jan. 6.
Pandemic Alters Celebration Plans
This year, like everything else, Día de Reyes will be different.
Some people who celebrate this tradition are opting not to do it. Many will not have family gatherings, even small ones, because the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge in Los Angeles, and particularly in the Northeast San Fernando Valley.
“Not this year,” lamented San Fernando resident Cesar Ramirez, owner and operator of Mariachi Zapopan.
“We will not be gathering with any friends or family this year because we are very concerned about further spreading this virus,” he said. “We have not caught it here at home. My wife and my daughters work in the food industry and we have all been tested several times and have been negative, thank God.
“But more and more friends and family around our community are catching COVID,” Ramirez added. “It’s sad and scary, as I have diabetes and high blood pressure. We might get a small Rosca just for us because this has been a very rough year…but my wife will make that decision.”
Carol Aguayo is another resident who said her family will forego the celebration this year. “Our tradition is that whoever gets the babies inside the Rosca has to host or prepare a ‘feast’” on Feb. 2, she said. “There’s no point. It’s so sad.”
Islas—who usually gathers with three or four families on this day, each bringing a Rosca and all kinds of food for a potluck — said this year her family will celebrate by themselves.
“The children get excited to see who’s going to get the Baby Jesus and bring the tamales on Feb. 2. For us it’s a blessing whoever gets the Baby Jesus” she said.
“Feb, 2 — that’s the last of the Christmas celebrations. We’re going to get a big one (Rosca) because we like it to last until the next day.”