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The History of Three Kings Day

For anyone who woke up with gifts under their bed or in their shoes today, Happy Three Kings Day.

Although I don’t celebrate Three Kings Day, it is something many Spaniards, Puerto Ricans, and Latin Americans celebrate. However, many people haven’t even heard of the holiday, so in the name of cultural inclusivity through education, I thought I would shed some light on the subject.

In all honesty, I had to conduct some research to educate myself enough to write this article.

Three Kings Day is also known as Epiphany, Little Christmas, Denha, Theophany, Dia de Los Reyes, and the Baptism of Jesus. To my surprise, Three Kings Day is celebrated on January 6th because it marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas, you know, as in the song. If I could insert the mind-blown emoji here, I would.

Wooden figurines depicting the Three Kings. Crafted around 1900 by a member of the Rivera family in the town of Morovis, Puerto Rico. (Courtesy of the National Museum of American History)

Three Kings Day celebrates the Magi or Wise Men, Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, who visited baby Jesus and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Each gift symbolized Jesus’s identity and importance.

A traditional Latin American way of celebrating the holiday consists of baking an oval or wreath-shaped bread named Rosca de Reyes. The bread usually has a toy doll baked inside to represent baby Jesus. Finding the doll is part of a game, with the reward varying from family to family.

The night before, children fill shoes or shoeboxes with hay and place them under their beds in hopes of waking up to gifts from the kings, similar to Santa Claus. Like the tradition of leaving out milk and cookies for Santa, the hay is there to feed the kings’ camels.

For some getting a visit from the Three Kings is more traditional and important than getting a visit from Santa Claus. For anyone who celebrates Christmas, all decorations stay up at least until the 6th.

I was not one of those people. Like most, I had never heard of the holiday until I was a teenager when my paternal Abuelito came to visit. As a traditional Puerto Rican man, he missed celebrating Christmas with us and insisted on celebrating Dia de Los Reyes.

His surprise arrival and my siblings and I being utterly ignorant to the holiday didn’t allow for much preparation or even a heads up that we were going to celebrate something. My sister and I shared a small room at the time, so we had bunk beds. The room was overcrowded and messy more often than not, so we would have taken a long time to notice anything out of place under our bed.

Like always, we woke up and instantly thought about finding something to eat. As soon as we entered the kitchen, we were asked all these leading questions about our bed, and our confusion was comical. Eventually, Abuelito and Papi were tired of our ignorance and told us to look under the bed. Still confused, my brother, sister, and I each found money lying in plain sight under our beds. Frankly, that money could’ve been there for days had we not explicitly been told to check.

That story is the extent to which my family celebrates Three Kings Day; Christmas is our main winter holiday. We leave the Christmas décor out until at least the 6th and wish each other Happy Dia de Los Reyes. However, leaving the décor out could be more about a desire to keep the Christmas spirit alive and a bit of laziness. One year, we left the tree up until Valentine’s Day, but I digress.

Learning about other cultures or even more about your own is always enlightening. More importantly, it’s a way to connect with people and create greater understanding amongst diverse individuals. With that said, Happy Three Kings Day to everyone. For those who don’t celebrate, Happy Friday.

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