This year, a friend who grew up in Mexico and lives in San Diego invited us to her family’s annual Rosca de Reyes party on January 6. The celebration always falls 12 days after Christmas, and marks the Christian Feast of the Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men or Magi–los Reyes Magos–arrived bearing gifts for the newborn baby Jesus.
“Rosca” means ”ring” and ”reyes” means “kings.” Rosca de Reyes refers to the special sweet “Kings Bread” that is baked for the occasion. Round or oval in shape to recall a King’s crown, the bread contains a tiny figure of the baby Jesus, baked inside to commemorate the Holy Family’s furtive flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s edict to kill all baby boys, lest one be the prophesied Messiah.
Part of the tradition is that whoever gets the piece of cake with the baby Jesus baked inside must host a party on February 2, the Feast of the Candelaria, and serve tamales to the guests. That person happened to be my eight-year-old son Mateo, who was delighted at the prospect.
I grew up in a fairly traditional Catholic family—Mass every Sunday beginning at the age of three; twelve years of Catholic school taught by nuns—yet I’d never celebrated Epiphany (as we always called it) or Three Kings Day in any way beside going to Mass. But I learned that in Spain and Latin America, for many families, Three Kings Day is the “main day,” bigger than Christmas, the day when children awake to find gifts left by the Kings inside or near their shoes. You can learn more from this Wikipedia entry.
Interestingly, I was discussing our Rosca de Reyes party with another friend, this one from the Bay Area, who happened to be traveling in the American South during the holidays. She reported seeing Rosca de Reyes bread decorated in purple, gold, and green, the traditional Mardi Gras colors, and observed that the tradition somehow had gotten folded into Shrove Tuesday celebrations. Another friend from the Bay Area told me that every January 6, her husband, born in Mexico, dressed up as one of the Wise Men (Melchior) to participate in a pageant enacted at their church.
How have I lived so long and never before experienced this holiday in this way? One of many questions I ask myself.
The photo above shows the Rosca de Reyes we ate this year, which was delicious. As for Mateo hosting the February 2 party: The last weekend in January we’re attending the large annual gathering of our local adoptive families with children from Guatemala, and I’m telling myself that the date is close enough to February 2 to count. Just to be sure, we’ll bring tamales.
Meanwhile, I’m very grateful to my friend for including us in her family’s Rosca de Reyes celebration, and especially for introducing my children to this Latin American tradition.