Across the U.S., Latino families celebrate Three Kings Day

Jan. 6, 2019 / 9:52 AM GMT

By Gwen Aviles

Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz still remembers the excitement of being a child in Puerto Rico, anticipating the arrival of the Three Kings on Jan. 6th.

“We’d pick up grass for the camels to eat in exchange for gifts,” Acevedo-Muñoz, now a professor in University of Colorado-Boulder’s Department of Cinematic Studies and Moving Image Arts, said. “Then we’d put in a box and leave it under our Christmas tree, and our parents would come and take the grass to give us the illusion that the Three Wise Men came.”

For Acevedo-Muñoz, picking the grass on the eve of Three Kings Day was “the most memorable practice” of the holiday.

Though the holiday’s traditions vary among cultures and nationalities, many Latino families across the U.S. are maintaining a tradition popular in Spain and Latin American countries. Epiphany commemorates the biblical story of the birth of Jesus Christ. According to the gospel of Matthew, three Magi, or Wise Men —Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar —followed a star across the desert for 12 days to Bethlehem to find the baby Jesus and bring him gifts.

“My most vivid memories were the times my family went to the parade on 8th street [Calle Ocho in Miami],” said Lucia Cantero, whose family is from Spain. “It was a brightly colored and aesthetic procession and portrayal of the biblical story of the Epiphany.”

The “madrinas” or “godmothers” of the Museo del Barrio’s Three KIngs Day Parade receive awards. Gwen Aviles / NBC News

As a child, Cantero was particularly struck by the “visual and ethnic diversity” the Three Kings represented.

“Los Reyes Magos made much more sense with the nativity scenes we had seen throughout Christmas, than a old white man in a beard shuttling down a chimney, with reindeers parked outside,” Cantero, an assistant professor at University of San Francisco, said. “Plus, we were in Miami and no one had chimneys.”

Decorations are stationed outside El Museo del Barrio in preparation for the Three Kings Day Parade on Jan. 4, 2019, ahead of Three Kings Day on Jan. 6. Gwen Aviles / NBC News

Ivette Compean Rodriguez, the executive director of the Mexican Cultural Center in Philadelphia, PA., says a cultural tradition is to place letters at the bottom of the pillow for the Three Kings to take.

If the children are good, they receive presents that morning.

“We had to behave,” Cantero similarly recalled. “We were incentivized to be good, the way Americans were with Santa Claus.”

In Latin America, Three Kings Day celebrations are still prevalent, as Acapulco, Mexico business owner and caterer Heidi Zimmerman Melgarejo told NBC News.

“Kids in Mexico (most of them, especially from small towns) do not ask Santa Claus for presents, but ask the Three Kings instead. They write letters that are often sent to the sky tied to a balloon.”

Families feast on “Rosca de Reyes,” a sugary bread that is decorated with Mexican candy called “acitrón,” candied figs and cherries. These adornments, according to Zimmerman Melgarejo, symbolize the crown jewels.

There is also a special surprise hidden inside the cake: a baby Jesus figurine. Whoever finds the baby Jesus in their slice is blessed, but there are also obligations. If a person accidentally chews on it, she has to take it to church on Feb. 2 (Candlemas Day) and host a dinner for guests.

To wash down the sweet treat, families drink Mexican hot chocolate called “Abuelita.”

Across the U.S., community groups and organizations in heavily Latino cities and towns have kept Epiphany traditions alive. In Philadelphia, the Mexican Cultural Center is hosting a holiday event on Sunday.

On Friday in New York City, El Museo del Barrio, dedicated to Latino and Latin American art and history, hosted its 42nd annual Three Kings Day Parade. Hundreds of people gathered in the Spanish Harlem neighborhood, many clothed in colorful costumes, wrapped in tinsel and donning capes like the Three Wise Men to celebrate the holiday.

The wise kings and queen at the 42nd annual Three Kings Day celebration at El museo del barrio.Gwen Aviles / NBC News

In a nod to the growing Hispanic influence in the U.S., there are Three Kings celebrations in big venues such as Disneyland in California as well as Busch Gardens and Sea World in Florida.

For most U.S. Latino families, Christmas is a bigger celebration than Three Kings. But for many parents, Three Kings is a tradition worth keeping, even on a smaller scale.

“Día de los Reyes is about teaching children about the communal nature of celebration, about community, belonging and being grateful,” said Harry Franqui Rivera, an associate professor of history at Bloomfield College in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

Rivera, who visits Puerto Rico regularly, said it’s going to be a better Three Kings this year than in 2018.

“Last year, there was no holiday season in Puerto Rico because of [Hurricane]Maria,” he said. “But even before Thanksgiving this year the houses were decorated and there was Christmas music.”

“This year,” said Rivera, “we’re doing it double.”