January 6 is Three Kings Day. In Spanish, it’s Día de los Reyes Magos, and it’s also known as the Feast of the Epiphany in many Christian traditions. In honor of the day, I decided to republish and update my post from last year.
Depicted above are carvings of Los Reyes Magos circa. 1875-1900, which are in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Teodoro Vidal collection.
The tradition of venerating the Magi, or Los Reyes Magos (the Three Kings), in Puerto Rico originated in medieval Europe, where the figures were included in Nativity scenes. Puerto Ricans celebrate Three Kings Day on January 6, when families get together and children receive gifts from Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. Many santeros, who carve wooden images of saints, create sculptures of the kings, even though they are not technically viewed as saints. Puerto Rican artists usually depict the wise men riding horses, rather than camels, and the black king Melchior is almost always shown on a white horse.
When I was growing up, I was always more interested in the figures of the three kings, which were part of our family creche-nativity scene, than I was with the baby Jesus or Mary.
Thinking back, it probably had something to do with the fact that one of them was black, and that all three were exotic and mysterious, dressed in elaborate robes and turbans.
I savored the sound of the gifts that they brought with them, especially frankincense and myrrh. Gold was the only one I could identify.
One of my favorite Christmas carols was We Three Kings.
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect Light.
Since my mom’s favorite vocalist was Ella Fitzgerald, I probably heard her version more than 1,000 times.
As I grew older, I participated in Three Kings celebrations with Puerto Rican friends and religious family members, and learned to appreciate a tradition that had no Santa Claus.
Three Kings Day is an official holiday in Puerto Rico.
Three Kings — Puerto Rico
In Puerto Rico, the biggest celebration of the Christmas season is focused mainly on January 6, the day of the liturgical celebration of the Three Kings. Gaspar, Melchor and Baltasar are the names of the Three Kings, although in Puerto Rico the identifications are different from the European traditions. Here, and in Cuba, the North African king is Melchor, not Gaspar, and Baltasar is represented as the oldest king with gray hair and beard. Gaspar, then, is the young, beardless king.
The reasons for the strong popularity of Three Kings Day in Puerto Rico are not clearly known, although there are various theories. The first is that January 6 was the date that the first Mass was held in the Americas, a tradition that with time has fallen from memory. The second is that the tradition comes from the diablillos celebration, a Spanish carnival festival that represented good and evil through various characters and was documented by Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz. He found the festival was celebrated particularly by blacks, for whom Three Kings Day was a time they could freely go from house to house wearing masks and asking for alms without being recognized.
The celebration of Three Kings Day is so important in Puerto Rican culture that the verb reyar, or “to king,” has been coined, which means to enjoy the celebration of the Three Kings festivals with singing accompanied by traditional musical instruments.
In the tradition of carvings of saints, there is a great variety of iconography of the Three Kings: mounted on horses before the Christ child, mounted on horses and looking left, as if following the star to Bethlehem, or on foot and side by side on a common base. They are presented as part of the scene of Christ’s birth or as individual saints. Generally, they carry gifts in one or both arms. These may be the traditional gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense or may be changed to typical Puerto Rican items, such as musical instruments.
The popularity of the Three Kings is not limited to the carving of saints, but also appears in other forms of artisanry, including silkscreen prints, sculptures in ceramics, bamboo and metal, as well as paintings
Two years ago, on this occasion, I wrote, “Three Kings Day in Puerto Rico. There will be toys but the Magi are not bringing light, ” featuring this video from Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Though much of the island now has light, the problems have not gone away, and the three Magi may find themselves with wet grass or hay because far too many homes still have leaking blue tarp roofs more than 800 days post-Hurricane Maria. This morning, Puerto Ricans awoke to yet another earthquake.
That will not stop the celebrations, however. There will be Three Kings marches across the island, as well as in Puerto Rican communities here on the mainland.
Other Puerto Rican communities in the diaspora celebrate:
In Puerto Rico, Epiphany is an important festive holiday, and is commonly referred as Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos, or Three Kings' Day. It is traditional for children to fill a box with fresh grass or hay and put it underneath their bed, for the Wise Men's camels
May the Three Kings bring blessings and legislation to help Puerto Rico in 2020, and in the years ahead. And may the man who thinks he is a king — be removed from office.
¡Feliz día de Reyes!