Three Kings Day is also referred to as the Feast of the Epiphany or just the Epiphany. Christians celebrate the festivity on January sixth to commemorate the birth of Jesus. The story is the Three Kings or Three Wise Men traveled from the far east to Bethlehem, each bringing a symbolic gift for the newly born king of the Jews. The names of the Three Kings were Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior. They brought gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold for Jesus. The full story is told in the Gospel of Matthew.
Celebrating Three Kings Day
Every Spanish speaking country across the globe celebrates Three Kings Day. Although there are differences in the way the holiday is celebrated in every country, the traditions all over Spain and Latin America have remained almost the same. January fifth is called the Night of the Kings, and this is when the celebrations begin. The festivities conclude on the sixth when children are given gifts from the Three Kings. For the Hispanic culture, the Epiphany is the end of the 12 days of Christmas.
Three Kings Day is an important celebration for Orthodox Christians and Catholics. In Spain, this is a very important festival called Fiesta de Los tres Reyes Mages. The translation is Festival of the Three Magic Kings. During the Spanish festival, the Three Kings come to give presents to the Catholic children. Every culture celebrates the day slightly differently including prayers, special songs and specific foods.
Latin America and Mexico
The popularity of Santa Clause is much greater in the United States than in Latin American countries and Mexico. These countries celebrate the Three Wise Men who bring gifts and place presents for little kids near or in their shoes. In these countries, the holiday began during the 4th century and is called the Epiphany. Families come together to cook a delicious feast in honor of the baptism of Jesus and the Three Wise Men.
Many people believe the birth of Jesus was precedented with a series of magical events. The most well known is the star appearing in Bethlehem. Right before Jesus was born, the star suddenly appeared in the darkening sky. This was when Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar arrived to celebrate the birth bringing myrrh, frankincense and gold. El Dia de Reyes is still an extremely important holiday throughout Latin America.
A culinary delight is baked to accompany the gifts. This treat is only enjoyed on this day, and is referred to as King’s Cake or Rosca de Reyes. The dessert is considered a symbolic pastry. The crown of the king is symbolized by the circular shape and inside is a lovely surprise. Every sweet bread has a little plastic figure of the baby Jesus hidden inside. Whoever finds the little Jesus must host the party for Candlemas Day or Conderlaria the following February 2nd.
The person with the piece of cake containing the baby Jesus is also considered to be Jesus’s Godparent for the rest of the year.
On the morning of the Epiphany, the people of Spain usually visit a local bakery to purchase a special pastry called a Roscon. The translation is a ring-shaped roll. The cakes are generally filled with either chocolate or cream. The decoration on top is a lovely paper crown. There are two items hidden in the cake, a king figurine and a dried bean. Whoever finds the king earns the right to wear the crown.
The person finding the dried bean must pat for the cake. In Catalonia, the cake is called Gateau des Rois or Tortell. The treat is filled with marzipan.
Belgium and France
In Belgium, the children dress in the same way as the Three Wise Men. They walk from door to door singing beautiful songs to receive treats or money. The premise is similar to the celebration of Halloween in America. The children in Poland also sing during Three Kings Day. The people of France enjoy an almond cake called Galette des Rois. The flat cake is decorated with a beautiful gold paper crown. Hidden inside is a small porcelain figurine.
Many Italian children receive gifts on Three Kings Day. The difference is the gifts are believed to come from an old woman named Befana. The children hang special stockings on the fireplace with the expectation they will be filled by Befana. Gifts are received by the children on the morning of the Epiphany from the La Befana witch. According to the story, when the Three Wise Men were searching for Jesus, an old woman visited them, and received an invitation to join them.
Even though Befana said she was too busy, the Three Kings went to her shack to offer another invitation. Once again she told them she was too busy. According to the story, she has flown through the skies ever since looking for the Christ child. During her flight, she leaves presents for the good children while conducting her search. The gondoliers in Venice celebrate the Epiphany by floating down the Grand Canal dressed in drag.
Peru and Portugal
The tradition in Peru is different. Incan country states celebrate the naming of Lima by Francisco Pizarro as the City of Kings. According to tradition, while the Epiphany was being celebrated with a great feast, Francisco Pizarro and two of his traveling companions discovered the perfect location for the capital city of Peru. The majority of Peru celebrates the special occasion with an event called Descent Of The Kings or the Bajada de Los Reyes. This event is far more popular than the giving or receiving of gifts.
In Portugal, the celebration is mainly focused on singing. The most popular carol sung on Three Kings Day is called January songs or Janeiras. The people of Ireland also celebrate through song, with the most popular being Singing the Kings or Cantar os Reis.
Ireland and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church
Three Kings Day in Ireland is often referred to as Nollaig na Bean. The translation is Women’s Christmas. According to Irish tradition, the women do not have to work for the entire day. All of the cooking and housework is done by the men. This tradition is consistently increasing in popularity. Many Irish women now get together during the Sunday closest to Three Kings Day to enjoy tea and cakes.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church does not celebrate Christmas until January 7th, a full 12 days past the traditional date of December 25th. The Epiphany is a celebration lasting for three days, beginning on January 19th. The celebration of the baptism of Jesus is called the Ethiopians Timkat.
In Austria, many families use chalk to create a special sign to hang directly over the front door. The sign is a symbol of the Three Kings who came to visit the baby Jesus. The sign is split using the initials of the Three Kings, Balthazar, Melchoir and Caspar. In the center of the sign is the year. Tradition decrees the sign offers protection for the home for the rest of the year. Certain parts of Germany also make traditional markings above the doors.
Three Kings Day in New Orleans, Louisiana involves taking down the Christmas tree or replacing the ornaments with green, gold and purple. The tree is then referred to as a Mardi Gras Tree. Another tradition is enjoying King Cake. The cinnamon cake is sprinkled with sugar, and often filled with jelly, jam or cream cheese. The small plastic doll inside of every cake is a representation of Jesus. Whichever individual receives the piece containing the baby provides the King Cake for the next year.
A King Cake Party is hosted by many of the residents of New Orleans each Friday prior to Lent. In Louisiana, the Mardi Gras season begins with the Epiphany. The custom is baking King Cakes at this time. The period of time between Three Kings Day and Mardi Gras is often referred to by the locals as King Cake Season.
United States Virgin Islands
In the United States Virgin Islands, the Epiphany is considered a public holiday. This means all government offices, businesses and shops are closed for the entire day. Certain businesses even close early the day prior to Three Kings Day. The rest of the United States does not consider the Epiphany a public holiday. Individuals from the Virgin Islands have celebrations to maintain and place emphasis on their culture and heritage.
The celebrations on St. Croix are the most prominent. The island celebrates the Epiphany with all different kinds of entertainment including parades, music, bands and food. Even though Three Kings Day is not considered a public holiday in the majority of the United States, numerous celebrations and traditions are important for Christians. The most common activities on this day include:
- A hunt is hosted with the winner finding the Christ child figurine.
- Numerous activities are hosted by Sunday schools with the focus placed on Three Kings Day. This includes making the star responsible for bringing the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus.
- During the Sunday nearest to the 6th of January, Christians attend church services and star processionals.
- Churchgoers host Epiphany celebrations, parties and luncheons.
- People host get-togethers or parties to receive help putting away decorations used Christmas and cleaning their homes.
The Commonality of the Different Traditions
Despite all of the different cultures involved, every celebration has an important commonality. The theme of every country is unity. Celebrations all over the world observe slightly different beliefs and traditions. The main goal of the Epiphany is always bringing together families, friends and neighbors. This is in reference to everyone who went to visit Baby Jesus after he was born including the shepherds and the Three Kings. Everyone celebrating the Epiphany is continuing the Christmas celebrations for a beautiful new year.
The Symbolism of the Epiphany
There are many different symbols representing Three Kings Day including artwork, sketches and paintings depicting Jesus and the Three Kings. Some of the paintings show Baby Jesus being adored by the Three Kings or their travels to Bethlehem. There is a strong symbolism regarding the visit of the kings because this demonstrates as the king of all kings, Jesus came for both the gentiles and the Jews. The Epiphany is also symbolized by the star guiding the Three Kings to Christ.
The three gifts presented to Jesus were also important symbols. The gold was suitable for a king, myrrh is a salve for irritations and critical for embalming and frankincense is popular for worship. The story of the baptism of Jesus is depicted in numerous paintings. A lot of Orthodox churches believe the baptism was the beginning of the crucifixion. The symbolic color of the Epiphany is white. Rosca de Reyes or Kings Bread is often baked for this day.
Although many perceive the round shape of the cake as a symbol of the king’s crown, some believe it is a representation of the eternal love of God because the circular shape does not have a beginning or an end. Kings Bread is made using dried fruit. The fruit is a representation of the jewels often used for a king’s crown. Some people believe the fruit is a representation of the inability to find Jesus due to the distractions of the modern world.
Each country decides which traditions and symbolism best suit their faith. Another commonality is the little plastic figure of Jesus. In some instances, the figure is placed in the cake once it has been baked and cooled. Some cultures bake the cake with the figure already hidden inside. This is symbolic of the flight of Joseph and Mary from King Herod to hide baby Jesus. Most cultures decree that whoever finds the figure of Jesus will host the February 2nd celebration of Candlemas Day.