Bostonians import Latin American traditions to celebrate Three Kings Day

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BOSTON – A cake with a doll in it, shoes full of hay, men dressing up in magisterial ways – these are just a few of the fanciful things that make up part of Three Kings Day celebrations, a holiday tradition for many Hispanic Americans in Boston and beyond.

Three Kings Day, or Día de los Reyes, is the highlight of the Christmas season for many in Latino communities, marked with festivals, parades and other events.

A child sits on the lap of a King. (Wikipedia)

A child sits on the lap of a King. (Wikipedia)

The celebrations occur on or around the Catholic feast of the Epiphany. According to biblical tradition, three kings (sometimes called the Magi) followed a bright star from the East to bring gifts for the baby Jesus, arriving on Jan. 6, or 12 days after his birth.

If you’ve ever wondered what the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” is about, it’s that  period between Christmas and the arrival of the Magi at the manger. Three Kings Day celebrates the end of the 12 days of Christmas and the beginning of Epiphany.

Before American influence made Santa Claus and Dec. 25 the focal point of the season, Puerto Ricans exchanged gifts each Jan. 6. Christmas Day was a time for worship to mark the birth of Jesus.  But Jan. 6 was the birthday party.

Children in Latino families that celebrate Dia de los Reyes place their shoes, or in some cases, a box, under their beds the night before, in hopes for a visit by the kings.

“When I was a kid I would put grass and water under my bed so that when the three kings came with their camels they would have something to eat,” Betty Francisco, who founded Latina Circle, a business mentoring group for Hispanic women working in law, business and other industries, recalled of her experiences growing up in Puerto Rico. Waking in the morning, she said, “I would find my gift!”

In the island commonwealth, the 12 days of Christmas are filled with family gatherings and parties. Families can be surprised any evening with a parranda, which can range from carolers gathering outside their door to complete surprise parties, where friends or members of the extended family show up unexpectedly with drinks, food, and music to celebrate.

Just as Americans are familiar with costumed Santas in department stores or at Salvation Army kettles, in some Latin American countries, it’s common to see men dressed as Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar – the three kings – and riding camels real or figurative through the streets, throwing candy to children.

In some Mexican and Puerto Rican families, a special tradition is added to the celebration with a cake called a Rosco de Reyes. The cake is bread-like, and baked inside is a figurine representing the baby Jesus. According to tradition, whoever gets the piece of cake with the figurine must throw a party on Feb. 2, also known as Candlemas or día de la Candelaria.

Some families bake several figurines into their Rosco de Reyes cakes, to spread the responsibility for the February party to more than one person. Co-founder of Latina Circle, Eneida Roman, grew up in Puerto Rico with this tradition, where the figurine stood as a symbol of good luck. But rather than putting on a party the next month, the recipient had to make the Rosco cake the next year.

Traditional Puerto Rican fare for this celebration includes roast pork, pasteles, and coquito, a creamy coconut cocktail with rum.

“It’s like the Spanish version of eggnog,” Francisco said.

Here in the Boston area, several groups are organizing Three Kings Day celebrations. The Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, or IBA, will host one at the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts on Friday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The IBA has celebrated Three Kings Day for over 30 years, ensuring that associated seasonal traditions stay alive in Boston. The celebration will feature cultural and artistic presentations, music, and, of course, gifts for children.

As many as 300 people are expected to attend the event, according to Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, IBA’s chief executive. Most come from Boston, but others journey from as far as Lawrence to join the celebration, she said.

“We are very proud to be keeping this tradition alive and sharing it with our children and others who want to learn,” Calderón-Rosado said.

Action for Boston Community Development, the Boston Hispanic Center and the Dominican Development Center are among the hosts of a Three Kings Day celebration Wednesday at the Jamaica Plain Area Planning Action Council office at 30 Bickford St. State Representative Jeffrey Sanchez and Boston Councilor-at-Large Matt O’Malley plan to attend.

Three kings are slated to make appearances at both events.

Francisco’s Latina Circle also plans a celebration for members.

“Culturally it is more this day that is celebrated,” Francisco said. “Why not extend the festivities and honor and celebrate our women mentors and role models at the same time?”