With Christmas and New Year’s over, you might find yourself in a post-holiday slump that you can’t get out of. There are always those New Year’s resolutions to work on, but that only further solidifies the fact that the holiday merriment is in the past. Though for many in Latin America and the rest of the world, the Christmas season is just now hitting its peak—with the Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day (El Día de los Reyes) on January 6. And even if this celebration for you is ingrained as a yearly family tradition, here are some fun facts and surprising history that you might not have known about.
There’s a reason you might have heard the 12 Days of Christmas song during the month of December on repeat—the Christmas holiday culminates on January 6 with the twelfth day of Christmas, the day when the three kings—Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar—finally finished their long journey to Bethlehem. Called the Epiphany, it comes from the Greek word for manifestation—seeing God in human form for the first time.
You’ve certainly heard of the three kings coming to visit the newborn Baby Jesus, but did you know that they each came from different parts of the world and came together to celebrate the event? Traveling from Europe (Melchior), Africa (Balthasar), and the Middle East (Caspar), each king brought a gift from their homeland to bestow. At a time when wars ravaged much of civilization, the symbolic unity of this event is pretty impressive, regardless of any religious undertones.
That’s right. Three Kings’ Day actually kicks off the Carnival season. So no worries if you thought the party was over, there’s more just around the corner! In 1783, the French dubbed the period between the Epiphany and Ash Wednesday “carnival,” meant to be a period of celebration prior to repenting during the Lenten season.
Bread for Days
The traditional rosca de reyes bread is enjoyed across Latin America—a dessert style bread with a baby Jesus figurine baked inside. Whoever is stuck with the piece containing the figurine is charged with hosting the next celebration on February 2—the Day of the Candles—by making tamales for the entire group. But Mexico is really known for its over the top celebrations. The zocalo in Mexico City has held celebrations with a loaf of bread over one mile long with hundreds of thousands attendees to try it. I wish whoever finds the baby Jesus figurine in that loaf the best of luck in preparing all of those tamales…
Three Kings’ Day festivities aren’t limited to Spain and Latin America. In Germany, Christmas trees usually stay up until January 6 (known there as Dreikönigstag) and carolers go from house to house raising money for charity projects. Known as La Befana in Italy, Italian children hang their stockings and wait for them to be filled by the soot-covered old woman, Befana. The Greek Orthodox church throws a cross into the water to celebrate the Epiphany (Theopany) and the local priest blesses each house in town.
If you thought that the holiday doesn’t make waves outside of Latinx communities in the States, think again. Disneyland hosts a four day celebration, which already began on January 4, to honor the holiday. And even New Orleans has its own version of the rosca de reyes, called king cake. Although it’s not usually enjoyed until Mardi Gras at the end of the carnival season, it recognizes the three kings with three different frosting colors—gold (power), green (faith), and purple (justice). Similar to the rosca de reyes, whoever finds the plastic baby baked into the cake is charged with hosting the party and baking the cake the following year.
Tried and True Traditions
You’ve probably got this part down—from leaving hay for the three kings’ camels, to writing letters to the three wise men, to leaving boots outside of the door instead of stockings on the fireplace, there are plenty of tried and true traditions used to celebrate across Latin America. Share with us your favorite, or even better—the wackiest or most surprising.