Los Reyes Magos
When I was a child, January 6th was a big deal. The night before, my mother, brother, and I would buy grass – flowers with green stems that we children called grass – and leave it, along with a bowl of water under our beds for the camels, hoping to get presents. On the morning of, we would wake up early and play with our gifts. The rest of the day was spent eating candy and visiting with family and friends, singing songs and dancing.
As we got older, we would go up to Spanish Harlem and watch the parade as we drank hot, sweet drinks. After the last of the children had walked by, we often headed to the Museo Del Barrio (sponsors of the yearly parade) where we would see the “Reyes Magos,” and receive gifts that had been donated to the museum by large companies. That, my mother says, was my favorite part.
Many people think that growing up in a city – as opposed to the country, or suburbs, or rural areas, where everyone knows each other’s names and intimate business – means that I, and people like me, have no sense of ‘real community.’ And maybe they are right. Being the child of someone who immigrated to the United States adds a level of alienation. Though Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and considered a quasi-state, the divide is larger than just distance. The language is completely different, the food, music, and culture the majority of those on the islands partake in completely alien to ‘Americans.’
My mother came to the United States in the winter of her thirteenth year, December. She had never experienced snow before, never had to have a coat or boots, and had never seen a skyscraper in real life. New York was like a new planet, one of unfamiliar words and small apartments. Back in Puerto Rico, the family would be gearing up for the most important holiday of the year – Three Kings day.
When most people think of Christmas, they think of waiting up on the Eve, trying to catch a glimpse of a fat man in a red suit, or of being at church for a few hours when all they want is to go home and rip open brightly colored packages. Santa and presents, and sometimes the baby Jesus, are at the center of the American Christmas experience. After December 25th, people pack away their nativities and count up their loot. Though they may hesitate to take down their trees, for most the holiday season ends on the 26th. For traditional Puerto Ricans, however, things are a bit different.
No other culture celebrates the Christmas holidays for as long as Puerto Ricans. On the islands, festivities begin the day after Thanksgiving, in late November, and don’t end until the last day of St. Sebastian Street Festival in Old San Juan, in the third week of January. These celebrations date back to the Spanish colonization of the islands, and the conversion of most of the natives and creoles to the Catholic faith.
The most important spread of days, between New Years and the 12th of January, are known as the Celebracion de los Reyes Magos, at the center of which is January 6th Three Kings day. Los Reyes Magos are the Three Kings, or Magi, of the story. In this tradition, they are equally, if not more important than the figure of the Christ. Their day, then, is the most important for most Puerto Rican children – this is, essentially, Puerto Rican Christmas.
The origin of Magos is from the Persian word magu, meaning magician. Magu were members of a priestly caste of ancient Medes and Persians. This name is also applied to the wise men in the Bible (in the Book of Matthew) who followed a star to Bethlehem; they are Los Reyes Magos, known to English speakers as the Three Kings. The Bible story does not name them or give their number, or at least the different interpretations cannot agree on any number, but Christian tradition from about the 7th century names the three as Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar. Their bodies are said to have been brought to Constantinople by Empress Helen, mother of Constantine, later to Milan, and finally to Cologne in 1162 by Frederick Barbarossa; since that time they have often been called the Three Kings of Cologne.
El Rey Melchior was the Sultan of Arabia. He was the oldest of the Magi, and was a small and gentle man. Melchior is described, and often depicted, as having a long white beard and wearing elegant crimson robes, much like another Yule time figure more familiar to Americans. His was the gift of gold, which was often used by the Hebrews in their Temples and was plentiful in the time of David and Solomon. He may have brought other priceless gifts as well, but the most prominent was the gold. Saint Melchior’s feast day is January 7th, and his figure goes before the other Kings in a manger scene.
El Rey Baltazar was a Nubian King and ruler of Ethiopia. His was the gift of myrrh, which is a precious, aromatic resin from the bark of thorny African trees; it traditionally symbolizes suffering. Myrrh was a precious commodity in the Middle East, and was one of the ingredients of the holy ointment (Exodus 30:23). It was also part of the embalming substance (John19:39). It has medicinal properties as well. Importantly, Baltazar was said to have died soon after in the presence of the other Wise Men. Saint Baltazar’s feast day is January 8th.
El Rey Gaspar was Emperor of the Orient and supposedly ruled over all oriental lands. He is often represented as white, and does not wear a beard. His clothes were gilded in gold. King Gaspar’s gift was frankincense, an exceedingly aromatic gum used in the sacred incense for the Temple service. It is distilled from a tree in Arabia. Frankencense was priceless and a gift for Kings; it symbolized prayer. It was burned in temples to honor God. It is said that Gaspar traveled the furthest to visit the Christ Child. Saint Gaspar’s feast day is January 6th.
In New York City, on the 6th of January, there is a parade to honor the Three Kings. A mixture of farm animals – the usual sheep and donkeys, along with the odder camel – march along among hundreds of Hispanic school children and community members. Our favorite spot to watch the revelry is on 106th Street and Park Avenue, across the street from the overpass. Together, my mother and I, and whoever else she has convinced to get up early on the surely freezing cold morning, stand huddled and sip hot beverages as the children scream and sing and dance down the avenue, using their noise makers to the best of their excited abilities.We are almost always late – usually either my dad’s or my fault – and so we, more often than not, only catch the tail end of the merry making. It doesn’t matter, though, because even at the end of the parade, the participants haven’t lost their enthusiasm.
Leading up to Three Kings Day, the children of the islands of Puerto Rico dress in costumes and masks, go around the neighborhoods singing and getting coins and candies for their efforts. The previous evening, the children will have cut grass and placed it in boxes under their beds as well as some water. The grass and water are to feed the Magi’s camels. The parents remove the grass and water and place toys, candies and coins in their place – we are big on sweets and coins.
My mother, who was born on the main island, described her family’s traditions as such:
“We always made masks of cardboard and painted them. We got dressed in ‘raggedy’ clothes, sometimes torn and always old. We had different instruments that we made: maracas out of small gourds, guiros out of the longer gourds, palitos we had aplenty. We went to the farthest corners of our neighborhoods and always got candies and coins. (Most we gave to Mom and Grandma because we were poor and they would purchase foods with it). The candies, of course, were ours to bloat ourselves in.”
My brother and I were born in the States, and never had the chance to experience the costumes and masks. We didn’t ever go door to door, begging for candy and coins. But my first memory of the Christmas season is not of Santa, or presents, or even the baby Jesus. I remember my mother handing me bits of grass to put under my bed, for the camels.