The way of the wise: Three Kings Day traditions close the Christmas season with cultural and spiritual meaning

North Texas Catholic
(Jan 5, 2024) Local

A view of a set of statues of the three kings at St. Michael Catholic Church in Bedford on Dec. 4, 2023. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Día de los Reyes (Three Kings Day) was always a significant holiday for Wanda Ortiz and her family.

“It was a big deal because my mother, Maria Delores, was born on Jan. 6, the Feast of the Three Kings,” explained the native of San Juan, Puerto Rico. “We celebrated for three days.”

When Ortiz moved to Kentucky, she joined relatives in Puerto Rico after Christmas and remained there until the Three Kings Day festivities were over.
Watching three men dressed as kings bring their gifts up to the altar made the Misa de los Reyes Magos (Mass of the Wise Men) the most beautiful liturgy of the Christmas season for Ortiz, an All Saints Church in Fort Worth parishioner.

“When we came home from Church, we opened our gifts,” Ortiz remembered. “My grandfather always said my mother’s birth was his gift from the Reyes.”

Follow the star

Little is known in Scripture about the Three Kings who arrived in Bethlehem from the Orient to pay homage to a newborn Jesus. How many visitors came to see the Holy Family, what their status in life was, is unknown. 

In his Gospel, Matthew does not call the travelers kings, but the gifts they bring to the Christ child — gold, frankincense, and myrrh — hint at wealth, power, and influence. Their ability to recognize that a significant event in history had occurred by the appearance of a star fulfills a prophecy found in the Old Testament.

“Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60:6)

A view of one of the three kings at St. Michael Catholic Church in Bedford on Dec. 4, 2023. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Two thousand years later, the Three Kings are remembered every Jan. 6 on the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord for their part in the Nativity story and salvation. It’s one of the oldest Christian celebrations dating back to the second century.

In many Western Christian traditions, 12 days of Christmas start with the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25 and culminate with the visit of the Magi — the first Gentiles to witness the manifestation of God in the world.

“They show us that God intends to bring salvation to the whole world and not just a select group,” pointed out Father Tim Thompson, pastor of All Saints Parish.

Scholars believe the Nativity visitors were multicultural astrologers who may have come from different parts of the East.

“The wise men were studying the stars and that’s what led them to Christ,” the pastor added. “It tells us God operates in many ways and means to reach people — even non-Christians.”

The word Epiphany means “manifestation” and several moments in Christ’s early life and ministry are considered “epiphanies,” including His birth in Bethlehem, the visit of the Magi, His baptism by John, and the first miracle at Cana.


Bearing gifts

Since 1970, U.S. Roman Catholics have observed the Epiphany on the first Sunday after Jan. 1, which falls on Jan. 7 in 2024. The day is recognized liturgically, but in other parts of the world, the arrival of the magi is greeted with parades, special foods, and gift-giving.

While American children go to bed on Dec. 24, hoping Santa Claus leaves presents to open the next morning, gifts are delivered by the Magi on Jan. 6 in most Hispanic countries with deeply Catholic roots.

“The Three Kings gave Jesus His first presents, so that’s a big difference between how we exchange gifts in Latin American countries and here,” said Arturo Marrero, a diocesan employee and former resident of Puerto Rico. “Three Kings Day is the biggest celebration of Christmas with a lot of festivities and singing.”

On the eve of Three Kings Day, children are encouraged to fill a shoebox with grass for the camels to eat — a custom similar to leaving carrots for Santa’s reindeer.

“Santa [has a] commercial purpose, but Three Kings Day is biblical so that’s a different story,” emphasized Marrero, a U.S. Army veteran.

Part of the holiday involves teaching children who the Three Kings were, what they brought, and the meaning of it all. Decorations depicting the Magi are displayed in homes throughout the year and are an important part of Puerto Rican culture.

“I have a picture of the Three Kings with the Puerto Rican flag in my office,” Marrero said proudly. “I miss Three Kings Day — not only the celebrations inside the church but also the community events.”

Growing up in the Basque region of northern Spain, Father Luis Arraiza, OFM Cap., describes the night before Día de Los Reyes Magos as a magical time for children.

“It was like believing in Santa, but it was the Three Wise Men who were going to bring you the gifts,” explained the pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Fort Worth. “We left milk for the three kings and hay for the camels. Our presents were left by the Nativity set or under the tree.”

Many of the Three Kings Day traditions practiced in Latin American countries today originated in Spain. One of the more flamboyant is the Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day parade on Jan. 5. Anticipating the arrival of Three Kings Day, Spanish towns and cities host a festive procession led by three men dressed in turbans and full royal regalia. Accompanied by camels or horses, these pretend kings walk the streets throwing candy to youngsters. Floats, dancers, and music add to the revelry.

Pedro Moreno, who was born in New York City but moved to Puerto Rico as a teenager, learned quickly the advantages to celebrating the Christmas customs of both countries.

A view of one of the three kings at St. Michael Catholic Church in Bedford on Dec. 4, 2023. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

“We got presents on Christmas and Three Kings Day,” boasted Moreno, a seasoned catechist who teaches adult formation at Our Lady of Guadalupe. “The way it worked in our house was you got new clothes for Christmas but toys for Three Kings Day.”

The bishops in Puerto Rico try to guide their flocks to a proper Advent season, but it’s hard to compete with the enthusiasm the Hispanic culture has for Christmas and Día de los Reyes, he observed.

“In New York, you’d see Christmas trees at the curb on Dec. 26, but in Puerto Rico, Christmas is a season that never ends,” Moreno continued. “Even getting ready for Three Kings, there is so much singing and food.”


Enduring tradition

Rosca de Reyes (or King’s bread) is a staple for the holiday. Baked into the sweet dough is the tiny figure of a baby, and finding the trinket symbolizes Jesus revealing Himself as the Son of God to the kings.

Despite the festivities and special dishes, Three Kings Day remains a very religious holiday in the island country. When a designated trio of men dress up as kings to visit the various churches and towns in the days before Día de los Reyes, their appearance is announced in the parish bulletin so children can greet them.

“The Three Kings that came to see Jesus are not Jews or Romans. They are from the Orient and receive a message, in their own way, that God has come to visit us,” Moreno asserted. “And they bring Him gold, frankincense, and myrrh — gifts representative of the life of Jesus.”

Gold indicates He is a King; frankincense is offered to gods; and myrrh symbolizes the suffering that is part of His future.

“Epiphany is the manifestation of God not just to Hebrews but the whole world,” he continued. “Other nations are represented in the Magi, and they demonstrate salvation is for everyone. It’s a wonderful example of evangelization.”

After leaving Cuba, Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda’s parents relocated to Puerto Rico where she celebrated the Christmas holidays with a Cuban flavor.

“I was in a culture that celebrated the Three Kings in a special way as part of Christmas,” said the Catholic author of books on Blessed Stanley Rother, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, and Mary of Nazareth. “It wasn’t until I moved to the States, married, and started having kids that I had to figure out how do we do that here.”

When her children were young, the mother of four carried on the Jan. 6 tradition by setting out boxes of hay for the camels and then leaving her youngsters three simple gifts to find in the morning.

Today, Scaperlanda carries on the rituals of her heritage with grandchildren who, in full costume, reenact the Nativity and the visit from the Three Kings on the Epiphany. Having an older grandchild read Scripture and blessing the house with holy water are part of the family’s celebration.

All three generations of Scaperlandas gather to print the initials of the three kings (traditionally known as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) with the year above the home’s front door in chalk.

“You do this on Three Kings Day to symbolize how you should welcome people into your home,” the Catholic journalist said, explaining the ancient tradition. “It’s a reminder of the welcome the Magi gave to Jesus.”

It is also popularly believed the Three Kings’ initials stand for “Christus mansionem benedicat” (“Christ bless this house”), and serve as a way of dedicating the home and the New Year to God.

“Traditions that combine our faith with our culture are essential,” Scaperlanda said. “Recognizing celebrations like Three Kings Day helps us witness to other people that Christmas is not over after the New Year. We seek Jesus, and we want to welcome anyone looking for faith into our circle.”

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