Who Celebrates Three Kings Day? What's with the Camels?!

Camels? Trinket-filled ring cakes? Troupes of guitar-wielding neighbors knocking at the door?

Three Kings Day (or “El Día de los Reyes Magos”) is celebrated on January 6, or the Epiphany, which marks the day when Catholics believe The Three Wise Men delivered gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold to the baby Jesus.

In Latino immigrant neighborhoods, some Christmas trees are still up, waiting for this last marker of the holiday season. Bakeries have been churning out Rosca de Reyes, doughnut-shaped pastries that contain a hidden plastic baby Jesus, meant to be consumed surrounded by family. Parades feature live camels and Latino kids with plastic crowns, who march down major urban avenues with their parents watching on proudly. And the evening of January 5th, those same kids leave an empty shoe outside for the Kings or put a box of grass, corn, or other camel food under their beds, expecting to wake up to some small token.

Or, at least, that’s the way it’s supposed to happen. But after the madness of the holiday rush, the long working hours of the recession, and the continuing force of assimilation, how many Latinos are pursuing the holiday with that type of verve? Do we even have time? Did we ever?

For some, the answer is: Definitely. Puerto Rican Tato Torres grew up playing traditional tunes with his family on Three Kings Day. “This, by the way, was my main source of musical training and experience,” he says. His band, Yerbabuena, will play a tribute to the Three Kings at the Nuyorican Poets’ Café on Saturday.

For others, though, the practice is—and has always been—much less elaborate.

“Growing up in Texas, it was not a big holiday in our home,” says Sylvia Martinez, a Mexican-American editor living in Garwood, New Jersey. “We would keep the Christmas tree up through the 6th in observance, but that was pretty much it. I did keep it up this year.”

To be fair, Martinez does not have kids, and Three Kings is all about the kids. On Twitter just days before, some optimists were still hoping for a “Team Jonas” membership or a “David Archuleta skin cover” for their iPods, though most get gold-covered coins or other low-cost stocking stuffers. Elizabeth Martin, a 15-year-old from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, still bemoans the year she asked for a dog and got a toy named “Real Dog” instead. (But it could have been worse. There is always, of course, the threat of camel dung for the badly behaved.)

Aurora Anaya-Cerda is the Family Programs  and Cultural Celebrations Manager at El Museo Del Barrio in New York City, which has hosted a Three Kings Day parade for the past 34 years. Thursday morning, she expects over 3,000 teachers and kids to come enjoy the artist-designed paper maché puppets, live music, “and yes, three live camels.” Among parade-goers, at least, acculturation seems to be a factor in dividing the camel-feeders from those happy to draw a line at Santa Claus.

“About 50 or 60 percent of the kids that attend have Spanish-speaking parents that celebrated in their native countries,” she says.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Anaya-Cerda herself would leave a shoe for the kings and have Rosca cake with Mexican hot chocolate with her family. “For me, this holiday is an important way to celebrate the Mexican culture I grew up with,” she says. “If I weren’t working for El Museo, I would have a celebration in my own home. But this way, I get a chance to share it with the city.”

Other Latinos are happy to leave the whole holiday behind.

“I grew up in Venezuela, and my family would always meet for a big lunch, followed by the Rosca. Whoever found the plastic Baby Jesus was declared the winner,” says a mother of four young kids now living in Connecticut. “Today I think that cake idea is a choking hazard and lawsuit waiting to happen. I would love to incorporate the Three Kings, but I’m too busy and I don’t want to be crippled by consumerism.”

So will Three Kings Day slowly disappear among U.S. Latinos? Syndicated columnist and City University of New York professor Miguel Pérez recently dedicated a column worrying about just that. “To many people who once believed in you, you are merely figurines now,” ” he wrote, addressing the Magi.

Maybe. Except that every year on blogs throughout the Internet, reacculturating Latina moms—even those who have never celebrated Three Kings, or hadn’t in years—have been writing about pulling grass and shoes together for the sake of their kids.

“Last year, after not celebrating, I resolved to celebrate Three Kings Day,” wrote Melanie Edwards, a Puerto Rican who blogs at Modern Mami, in 2010. “It’s a fun holiday and I’m so glad that we pulled it off this year. I plan on continuing to celebrate each year so that baby girl can create her own memories and embrace this Latino tradition.”

New Yorker Belén Aranda-Alvarado planned to take her 5-year-old, Natalia, to El Museo’s East Harlem procession even though she didn’t celebrate Three Kings herself as a child in Chile.

“One of the responsibilities we have is to educate ourselves on what bad-asses [Latinos] are,” she wrote in an email. “[Natalia] needs to know about Three Kings Day because it is part of being an educated Latina. I can't depend on schools to teach her that; that is what I give her.”

Michelle Herrera Mulligan is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She co-edited "Border-Line Personalities: A New Generation of Latinas Dish on Sex, Sass and Cultural Shifting" and blogs at michelleherreramulligan.com.

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