Photo /SFVS Staff 

Fresh loaves of rosca de reyes bread being readied for the Day of the Epiphany.

Walking into panaderias this week, the pleasant smell of pan dulce is even stronger with the addition of many colorful Rosca de Reyes (Wreath of Kings) sweet bread.

Locally, The Las Palmas Bakery and San Fernando Bakery have been favorite spots for getting your family Rosca. The Rosca, shaped in a circle is decorated with dried fruit that symbolize jewels on a King’s crown and inside the baked bread is a small figurine of baby Jesus. The tradition is that each person cuts their own slice of the Rosca and the one who gets the figurine is expected to host a party on Día de la Candelaria (Candlemas), on Feb. 2.

It is a lot of good-natured fun and laughter when some attempt to cut a very slim slice to avoid the obligation.

In households around the world, including Latino communities throughout the United States, the Christmas season is not over until El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos — Three Kings Day, Jan. 6, also known as the Epiphany — is celebrated.

It is the day when the three wise men Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, guided by the North Star, brought Baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Three Kings Day is the twelfth day after Christmas, and for some religious denominations is the “true Christmas.”

The 12 days between Christmas and the Epiphany are known as the “Twelve Days of Christmas” — even most nonreligious people are somewhat familiar with it because of the popular song, and some sects of Christianity exchange gifts on each of the 12 days.

While this traditional holiday may not be celebrated in every Latino household, it is viewed by many as much as a cultural holiday as well as a religious one. It is another opportunity to gather with friends and family.

 However, the pandemic this year like the last, with the numbers of Covid-19 cases increasing, has caused people to hold much smaller gatherings with only their immediate family members.

“We are celebrating in a different way now,” said Arleta resident Irene Grajeda. “We’re now ‘facetiming’ with our family instead getting together. We used to have family coming in and out throughout the day to eat and have ‘atole’ and we’d pass a baby Jesus statute around the room, and we’d give it a kiss, but we can’t have a big gathering right now.

“We’ve had some of our family members who’ve tested positive for Covid-19, so we know this is real,” Grajeda said. 

On Christmas Eve, her family opted to watch Mass online even though their parish was open for people to attend in person.

Around the world, festivities usually start the night of Jan. 5 when hundreds of people come out for processions which reenact the arrival of the Three Kings. For them, it is not Santa Claus during Christmas who brings gifts but the Three Kings, and this is the day when gifts are exchanged.

All large public gatherings now have to consider the pandemic.

Mission Hills artist Lalo Garcia recalls the excitement he had on Three Kings Day as a boy growing up in Mexico. Traditions vary from country to country and city to city. One common tradition, he notes, is for the children to put out their shoes to acknowledge the Maji’s long journey, and they sometimes place grass in their shoes for the Three Kings’ camels to eat.

“In Mexico, we didn’t have a lot of shoes, so, we would go to the wash the day before and find old shoes and take them to the home of a relative and leave them there,” Garcia said. “Then on Three Kings Day we’d go back looking for the shoes and would find them with something special placed in them — sometimes it was candy or crackers.” 

Garcia laughs when he remembers considering who his most prosperous relative was, and where he could leave a pair of shoes. “We’d even try to find more than one pair of old shoes to leave at the homes of different relatives.”

While Garcia is unsure how the pandemic will impact celebrations in his hometown in Michoacan, he said that typically the day before the holiday in Mexico is like “Black Friday,” in the United States.

“Everyone is out buying presents for their children. It makes sense — it was the Three Kings who brought gifts,” he said. “In plazas you’ll find kids taking photos with the Three Kings, not Santa.”

In the United States, it’s common for many Latino households to celebrate on both holidays with a final gift given on Three Kings Day.

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