Although Santa Claus has been relieved of his duties this holiday season, families throughout Latin America haven’t ended their celebrations. They anxiously awaiting the 12th day of Christmas, known as Three Kings Day, or Dia de Los Reyes.
The holiday commemorates the arrival of the three kings who visited baby Jesus. According to religious text, the men found their way to him by following a star across the desert. The journey lasted 12 days, with a final destination at Bethlehem. The three wise men (as they are also known), Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar–representing Europe, Arabia, and Africa, respectively–traveled to give baby Jesus three symbolic gifts.
The first gift of gold, was offered as a symbolic acknowledgement of Jesus’ royalty; the second gift, frankincense, brought about the divine nature of the baby’s existence; finally, myrrh, often used to embalm corpses, was gifted as a symbol of his mortality–brought to life by the countless celebrations of Semana Santa.
Here’s an overview of how families in Peru celebrate Three Kings Day
Instead of writing to Santa, most children across Latin America write to The Three Kings. On January 5th, children take the time to write their letters, and on that night, grass and water is left outside the door for the camels–much like milk and cookies for Santa. In some countries, the departure of the kings and their camels leave a messy trail to be followed where they will then find their gifts.
Other countries utilize the children’s footwear to present gifts. The night before Three Kings Day, the children will leave their footwear outside so that the kings are made aware of how many children they should leave gifts for. Small presents are placed inside the shoes, while larger gifts are placed around them.
Throughout the region, and even some cities in the U.S, festivals and parades are held to celebrate this special day. In Cusco, Peru, locals celebrate “La Bajada de Los Reyes” with spectacular events, immaculate reenactments, religious processions,and festive parties.
The Catholic churches in the neighborhood hold masses for the public where people gather to pay their respects, carrying in their “Ninos Manuelitos” — baby dolls representing baby Jesus Christ. The “Ninos Manuelitos” are blessed during mass, and then carried out by their rightful owners in hopes of bringing the blessings to their dwellings.
The biggest celebration, however, happens just outside of Cusco in the Sacred Valley, in the town of Ollantaytambo. With colorful costumes, traditional dances, and festivities that last 3 days, visitors from all over the world fly to Cusco to experience this celebration. People from the surrounding provinces participate in the celebration, representing and sharing their own traditional dances and foods.
In Lima, Peru, also known as The City of Kings, a reenactment of the meeting between Jesus and The Wise Men is held by select members of the community dressed in traditional Andean attire. For Lima, Three Kings Day, or La Bajada de Los Reyes Magos, is an especially important holiday as Lima was named in honor of these kings.
Traditionally, some families gather for a meal, and to officially take down the impressive nacimientos put up during the holiday season in Peru. Everyone participating in the dinner must remove at least one piece of the scene, and in some cases, replace the piece with money. The money is used for the creation of the nativity scene in the following year.
Throughout the region, families prepare their own versions of the traditional desert consumed on January 6th, Rosca de Reyes. It is a sweet candy bread, or cake, baked with fruit in the shape of a crown. Sometimes, a tiny baby Jesus figurine is hidden inside of the cake to mask the place of his birth.
According to the tales, the leader of Jerusalem at the time, King Herod, was made aware through mystical signs that the new and rightful King of Jerusalem had been born. He immediately ordered for the murder of all newborn males in Bethlehem. Unbeknownst to the King, Mary and Joseph cared for the infant in a manger–the reason the nacimientos are an important aspect to Peru’s holiday celebrations.
La Bajada de Reyes wraps up the holiday season in Peru, as it opens the festive party celebrations of Carnaval.