Much of the global body of Christ knows January 6 as Epiphany, the church calendar’s final day of Christmas and an opportunity to remember the Magi’s early recognition of Jesus as God. In the Spanish-speaking world, this time is known as el Día de los Reyes, or Three Kings Day, and often includes presents, culinary traditions, and even visits from the wise men themselves. For a variety of reasons, the day and its festivities have been inconsistently carried on in American Latino communities.
We asked seven Latino Christians to share what el Día de los Reyes means to them, how they celebrate it today, and to what extent last year’s insurrection has affected how they’ll observe the day.
Noemi Vega Quiñones, associate director of spiritual formation and theology for InterVarsity’s Latino Fellowship, Dallas, Texas
Each January 5, children around Mexico (and Latin America and Spain) place their shoes near the nativity scene and anxiously await the gifts the reyes magos (the wise men) will bring the next morning! I grew up with my mother’s stories of her childhood in el rancho (a small pueblo) and how the reyes would bring lupita dolls and cardboard cars, filling their shoes with Mexican candies and cacahuates (peanuts). She taught us that Día de los Reyes was more than just receiving presents. It was a day that recalled the miraculous incarnation of God become man in the birth of Jesus and the miraculous escape from Herod’s genocidal decrees.
Because the attacks on the Capitol fell on January 6, the juxtaposition of el Día de los Reyes and the anniversary of the insurrection give us much to consider. El Dia de los Reyes embodies the truth that God became man to redeem humanity and that this redemption was threatened by a king that desired to have complete dominion over his people. Salvation, the king demanded, would come from him alone, not from a baby boy. The wise men knew that Jesus would be the true king of Israel. Upon seeing the guiding star stop where Jesus was, they were filled with joy and worshiped the child.
In contrast, Herod ordered every boy two years and under to be murdered for fear of losing power over the Jewish people. The violence on the US Capitol is certainly not comparable to Herod’s genocide, but perhaps there is something yet we can perceive for our times. Jesus confounds the powers and principalities of this world and declares that God has the last word on humanity’s well-being. Día de los Reyes is a time to pause and remember the miraculous gift that we have in the birth and life of Jesus. It is a reminder for Christians to check our hearts for harboring thoughts or violence against others and a call to worship Jesus alone.
Jules Martinez, the Milton B. Engebretson Chair in Evangelism and Justice, North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois
I celebrated el Dia de los Reyes growing up in Puerto Rico. Our Christmas music, festivals, and gifting started right after Thanksgiving and continued until January 6. My family will celebrate exchanging gifts this year, concluding the Christmas season.
Now, as a member of the diaspora, I treasure how Three Kings Day is commemorated with parade celebrations in Puerto Rico (also in Mexico, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic). The kings, traditionally known as Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar, appear journeying in towns with gifts for the newborn Jesus. Frequently riding on horseback, they have colorful handmade costumes and crowns and carry gifts for children, often ending in a Catholic cathedral for the celebration. On the eve of the celebration, children are encouraged to find small boxes, fill them with grass (to feed the kings’ camels), and place them under their beds. The idea is that just as the kings brought gifts to the newborn Jesus, they also bring gifts to children. Then when the children wake up, they can look under their beds to find their gifts.
I celebrate this day as part of my culture, and most significantly, as integral to the sacred memory of Epiphany. As Gentile Christians, we also respond to the calling of God to come to see the divine Son. We also respond to the divinely appointed epiphanies that led us to the gospel.
Yet the gospel has always been announced in dangerous times. The insurrection of January 6 is in my memory with its violence and blasphemous use of Christian symbols. Yet this nefarious event only increases my longing for Epiphany’s celebration: The king is here and will transform our world.
Elizabeth Rios, founder, Passion2Plant.com, Miramar, Florida
I learned about Three Kings Day from my Puerto Rican family. Growing up in New York City, we never did much of the presents or the grass under the bed thing—we were from the concrete jungle. However, we celebrated with the traditional food and songs, trying to keep our practice alive despite the commercialization of Christmas.
In my house, this day will hit a bit different after it was tainted by last year’s insurrection, brought on by people who thought they were following Jesus. Traditionally a day to reflect on the baby Jesus being worshiped by three wise men, this year I will choose to reflect on why baby Jesus came into a dark world and how we should guard our hearts against tying our faith to political power.
Sarah M. Guerrero, writer, Austin, Texas
I didn't grow up celebrating el Día de los Reyes, and I’m sorry for that. Like so much of my cultural history on my mother’s side, I don’t know if this holiday was never part of my ancestors' lives, lost somewhere along the line to assimilation, or dropped due to personal preference. While my father can trace his ancestry back to Scotland, my mother’s family has lived on land that’s been claimed by Spain, Mexico, and Texas (and was the home first of people like the Tonkawa). We are Hispanic without being Mexican, which is unusual for the part of Texas I call home.
Despite being a person of mixed ethnicity, I grew up with an unintegrated faith and cultural tradition, primarily informed by European Christianity. This tradition taught me to be suspect of anything that wasn’t white. But as an adult, I’ve learned from theologians like Kat Armas, Karen Gonzalez, and Liz Márquez that an integrated faith can and should embrace all parts of my ethnicity, especially the parts that are brown.
As I’ve learned about holidays close to my heritage (I’m googling things just like everyone else!), I’m stunned by the upside-down wisdom of the wise men. Brown, “pagan,” and students of astrology, they were the first on record to recognize the kingship of Jesus. They bring me face to face with the people and ideas I’ve discounted because they weren’t “Christian” enough. I feel grief this holiday because it reminds me of the cultural heritage I’ve lost and the places I’ve platformed whiteness in my own theology. But there’s also a glimmer of tender hope that as I embrace my own unique ethnic heritage, I will find Jesus.
Aaron Reyes, lead pastor, Hope Community Church, Austin, Texas
Three Kings Day wasn’t celebrated much in my Mexican American household. Like most other evangelicos or cristianos, we interpreted this day as a Catholic tradition that should be ignored. So, I didn’t get to enjoy a Rosca de Reyes until later in life. But it was a fun day for my Catholic friends, who got to open a lot of gifts.
Now, as a parent and pastor, I acknowledge and celebrate this day. It’s meaningful for me this year, on the anniversary of last year’s insurrection, to remember that the King of the Jews came to us as a vulnerable babe in the obscure town of Bethlehem in an obscure part of the Roman Empire. This day reminds me that greatness and power aren’t achieved by force. Jesus didn’t arrive in Rome with an army to grapple for power. The model of Jesus is that true greatness is found in humility and service. Though worshiped and gifted on Epiphany, Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
So, today, I’m going to delight in a Rosca de Reyes with my children. Using the oval-shaped cake, we will recall how, similar to the hidden doll inside the cake, God protected the Christ child from Herod. Moreover, drawing attention to the wreath-like appearance of the cake that’s adorned with candied fruits (“rosca” means wreath), I will explain to my kids that God sent foreign magi to acknowledge that Jesus is King, not only of the Jews, but of all peoples. And, as such, Jesus is deserving of our worship and lives.
Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III., assistant professor of the New Testament at Vanguard University, Costa Mesa, California
My family taught me about Three Kings Day when they explained how they celebrated the holidays in their home country of Costa Rica. They received their gifts on January 6 and celebrated December 24 with dinner. When I would ask, “Why don't we do this here in the US?” they asked me, “How can we compete with Santa?”
Unfortunately, as a third-generation Latino, this holiday is one of those traditions that has been lost through our cultural assimilation in the US. Our family wanted us to culturally fit in with society and others, so we did not carry this tradition in our family practices. Today I want to recover these important and lost traditions that mark and define our cultural and religious identity.
What’s more, these traditions make Christmas celebrations more biblical and meaningful by connecting the stories of the Bible with real celebrations in the home and church life. We make Christmas real through performances and by focusing on the entire Christmas story in the Bible. For this reason, nativity scenes in Latino households are important—they visually remind us of Jesus’ birth.
Fernie Cosgrove, Well-Watered Women staff writer, Connecticut
I have many cherished memories around Three Kings Day from growing up in Mexico. Every year, on January 6, we would gather with our family to eat a “rosca de reyes,” a delicious bread that holds plastic toys in the shape of a baby. If you get the toy, you host the next gathering where you serve guest tamales. As an adult, this is a great reminder of the way the Three Kings were able to gather to praise King Jesus in a manger, and through their gifts proclaim that he was indeed the King of kings they had long been waiting for. This celebration has shaped my thinking to remember that the birth of Jesus doesn’t only impact us on Christmas, but throughout the year and leads me to think about the way I esteem Jesus as the King of my life!