Three Kings Day was originally a Christian feast day celebrating the revelation of God in the Christ child. It is the highlight of the holiday season for some Latin communities, especially the Puerto Rican community.
The twelfth day of Christmas celebrates the biblical story of the three Magi or wise men Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar, who followed a star to Bethlehem to pay their respects to the baby Jesus. They gave the child gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh before returning home.
We don’t really know who the Magi were, where they were from, when they visited, or even how many they were. There are many regional variants and the tradition has been filled in from the barest of hints.
The biblical story comes from the Gospel of Matthew in the first book of the Bible’s New Testament. It tells of “wise men from the East” who came to Jerusalem looking for “the child who has been born king of the Jews.”
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
Many traditions are built around the shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere which can be any day between December 20-23. All of the traditions have something to offer if you take the time to contemplate them. It does not really matter if they are your personal traditions or not. They are human traditions and we are all humans.
On a personal note, I find Three Kings Day to be the day every year when all the pressures of the holidays melt away. I feel renewed and able to get back to work. I hope you do too.
The image is “Les rois mages en voyage” (The magi kings on their journey) 1886-1894 by French painter James Tissot. It is in the collection at the Brooklyn Museum.
Three Kings Day Traditions
Three Kings Day is a ritual of retelling biblical stories, especially to children. In this way, the tradition is similar to a Jewish Passover Seder, the ritual feast that starts the Jewish holiday of Passover and plays an important role in passing traditions to the young.
Traditions differ in each country and even among families. For Eastern Christians (the Orthodox Church), Three Kings Day celebrates the baptism of Jesus and is more important than Christmas. In some families this is the day for exchanging gifts.
In the Spanish tradition, children polish their shoes and leave out treats for the kings and their camels on the eve of January 6th. The children awake to find presents under their shoes, or if they have been naughty, coal (rock candy dyed black). The day is a day of colorful parades representing the arrival of the Magi, gift-giving and eating Epiphany bread.
Puerto Rico has unique and very extended holiday traditions. Festivities start in the beginning of December and continue until Three Kings Day. On the eve of Three Kings Day, Puerto Rican children cut grass for the king’s camels to eat. They put the grass in boxes under the beds of their parents and extended family members. The Kings come during the night and put treats in the boxes while their camels eat the grass.
Three Kings Day Events
New York City’s main Three Kings Day celebration is El Museo del Barrio’s Three Kings Day Parade in East Harlem.