From East Harlem in New York to Disneyland in Southern California, many Latinos on Monday will celebrate a Christmas holiday that some believe is even bigger than December 25, the Día de los Reyes.
Three Kings Day or Día de Reyes is January 6. This day is formally the Feast of the Epiphany on the church calendar, the 12th day after Christmas, when the Gospel of Matthew says the Magi arrived bearing gifts for the divine child, Jesus.
“In the Caribbean, it’s bigger than Christmas,” says Gonzalo Casals, the Argentine-born head of El Museo del Barrio, sponsor of the East Harlem parade, “and it’s kind of like, you know, Christmas is just another thing happening before the Three Kings.”
Día de Reyes is a traditional day of celebration in Mexico and many Latin countries, as it is in many parts of the U.S., with its 50 million-plus Hispanic population.
In Mexico and other places, children receive gifts on this day, brought by the three wise men – this in addition to presents from Santa Claus.
Many Latino communities in the southwestern states mark Dia de los Reyes with festive processions.
But arguably one of the oldest of these celebrations is the one in East Harlem, which for almost four decades has been annually holding its Three Kings Day Parade with a 14-foot-tall puppet, live camels, honorary kings and a holiday feast.
“We have almost, like, 3,000 school kids joining us from different schools all over the city,” says Casals. “We have community-based organizations that are in the neighborhood and they also work with Latino community.
“We have families that, you know, let their kids, you know, not go to the school, you know, that day and just celebrate with us.”
You might almost say it is a party worthy of Disneyland, and for the third straight year, the magical kingdom of Disney has joined in celebrating Three Kings Day.
In Disneyland, this year Dia de Reyes moved to Disney California Adventure, where it became part of the larger Viva Navidad! celebration in Paradise Garden.
In the Los Angeles suburb of Huntington, a traditional Three Kings celebration has been taking place for the past 14 years.
It includes a religious procession with the Three Kings riding on horse, camel, and elephant to a nativity site with residents dressed as the traditional religious figures of Mary, Joseph surrounded by shepherds.
For Santos Montemayor of East Los Angeles, Día de los Reyes means keeping the same rituals she practiced in her native Mexico, where she was raised.
This includes leaving gifts near the shoes of her young children and gathering to eat “la Rosca de Reyes” — a ring-shaped sweet bread with a baby Jesus figurine hidden inside.
The tradition calls for the person whose slice of the sweet bread has the figurine of the baby Jesus to prepare tamales for everyone on the Day of the Candles on Feb. 2.
“We try to buy the rosca at least one day before because we know they run out,” says Montemayor, who bought the sweet bread Saturday.
For the Montemayor family, this is a tradition that has been passed down several generations and that she considers an important part of her culture.
“It’s a time for us to get together with family and friends,” she said. “It’s a custom we practiced in Mexico, and now we do it here.”
Originally published on VOXXI as Dia de Reyes, a celebration bigger than Christmas for many