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What Is Día de Los Reyes Magos?

Photograph by Maura Wall Hernandez

January 6 marks the arrival of the three kings in Bethlehem, a Christian holiday also known as Epiphany (and also considered the twelfth day of Christmas). But you may have heard Latino friends calling this holiday Día de Los Reyes Magos or Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day). It's widely celebrated in Spain, Latin America and by Hispanics in the U.S., as well.

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Prior to January 6, children write letters to the three kings with their gift requests and reporting on their good behavior — Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior — sometimes attaching their letter to a balloon and releasing their balloon into the sky. Although many families who celebrate this holiday also receive gifts from Santa Claus, the three kings also deliver gifts to children on this special day.

Traditionally, children leave their shoes out for the kings to deposit gifts, similar to St. Nicholas Day on December 6. Some children also leave water and grass for the wise men's camels, in the same way that many children leave cookies and milk for Santa Claus.

In some countries, such as Spain, parades are also held with the Magi as the honored guests, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh like in the biblical story. The gold represents kingship on earth, frankincense is a symbol of deity, and myrrh, an oil, is a symbol of death.

The most popular food shared by families on this holiday is a round, egg-bread pastry called a rosca de reyes, which is similar to the New Orleans-style king cake eaten during the pre-Lenten celebrations known as Carnival or Mardi Gras, and decorated with candied fruits, sugar and sometimes nuts. Some cakes are also filled with nata, a custard-like filling, or fruit. In France, where this holiday is also celebrated, they call this cake a Gallette de Rois and it often has a frangipane filling.

Inside of each cake, there's also a small figuring baked into the bread to symbolize the baby Jesus being hidden from King Herod. Each person gets to cut their piece from the cake, and whoever receives the baby figurine inside their piece is responsible for providing tamales on Día de la Candelaría (Candlemas) which is celebrated February 2 and is the day that baby Jesus is said to have been blessed in the temple.

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