By Deborah White. Deborah is an expat freelance writer from Ogden, Utah who lives in Mexico year-round.
The Christmas season is an exciting time around the world. Holiday observances differ in some aspects, but the spirit of the holiday season is the same, regardless of where you live.
Let’s take a closer look at how Christmas is celebrated in Mexico. The Christmas season in Mexico is long. It starts off on December 16 with religious processions called Las Posadas, which represent the journey to Bethlehem, made by Joseph and Mary, to find a safe harbor for their unborn baby Jesus.
The official end of the Christmas season is Three Kings Day, followed by Candlemas Day on February 2nd.
Three Kings Day Celebrations
Three Kings Day is a holiday with many names: Three Kings Day, The Day of the Kings, Epiphany, Twelfth Night, Little Christmas, Theophany, Timkat, and Reyes are just some names this holiday goes by.
Whatever its name, its origin is ancient. Three Kings Day, a Catholic celebration, can be traced back to the 4th century, when it was celebrated by the Greek-speaking portion of the eastern Roman Empire.
It celebrates the journey of the Magi, or Three Wise Men, who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh in the famous biblical Christmas story.
Much of Latin America, and specifically southern Mexico, concentrates their holiday festivities on January 6th, el Dia de Los Reyes (Day of the Kings). Being the 12th day of Christmas, it signals the end of the holiday season.
Who Were the Three Kings?
The Three Kings were Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. Melchior was the King of Persia, Caspar the King of India, and Balthazar was represented as an Arabian King and occasionally a King of Ethiopia.
Los Nacimientos (The Nativity)
The Nativity scene plays an important role in Mexican Christmas celebrations. It’s used not only to depict the birth of the Christ child, but also plays the role of a Christmas calendar of sorts. Pieces are added to the scene over the Christmas season as they played out in history.
For instance, the baby Jesus figure is placed in the manger on Christmas Eve. Los Reyes Magos (the Three Wise Men) and their animals are placed out on January 5 to depict their arrival.
Gift-Giving and Santa Claus
The Three Kings are the traditionally prominent figures of Christmas in Mexican culture. Santa wasn’t a “thing” until the 20th century, when the United States commercialized “Santa” as an icon for the Christmas buying season.
Generally seen as “imported,” Santa did not gain nearly the same foothold in Mexican culture as he did in the United States. Even so, in some areas of Mexico, lucky children receive gifts from Santa, usually on December 24, and from the Three Kings on January 6.
Dia de los Reyes is the day that the southern Mexican and most Latin American cultures exchange gifts. It’s a very festive day filled with extended families visiting, games, and for the children, Los Tres Reyes Magos (the Three Wise Men) bring gifts to hide in their shoes.
Shoes are left out before bed, filled with hay for the kings’ hungry camels. In the morning, excited children find their shoes empty of hay and filled with brightly colored candies and small toys. Often, there are also gifts under the Christmas tree or, if no tree, by the nativity scene, from the Three Kings.
So, don’t be surprised if in southern Mexico you get some dull stares if you ask children if they’re excited about Santa. They’re not. They’re waiting for the Three Kings!
Three Kings Cake
When visiting Mexico during the Christmas season, keep in mind: those lovely-looking, round, donut-shaped pastries are dangerous. Why? We’ll explain.
Originating in Spain and brought to Mexico by the Spanish, Rosca de Reyes (Kings’ Cake) is more like sweet bread.
Its shape is symbolic of a crown and embellished with red and green candied fruits and nuts. The fruits symbolize two things to the Mexican people: the jewels of the Three Kings’ crowns and the colors of the Mexican flag.
Be careful while you’re eating the pastries. They come with small hard plastic or ceramic baby Jesus figures cooked inside!
Tradition dictates that whoever gets the baby in their serving must have the fiesta on Día de la Candelaria, or Candlemas Day in English, on February 2. It’s traditional for the host to serve the tamales for the party.
The Rosca de Reyes cakes come in several sizes and can be plain or filled. The fillings are typically cheese-based but also come in some other delightful flavors such as guava, pineapple, and cajeta, or caramelized goat’s milk.
Traditional Mexican Food on Three Kings Day
You didn’t think the cake was the only thing on the menu, did you? It’s customary when friends and extended families come by on Three Kings Day to serve either hot chocolate or a uniquely Mexican beverage called atole.
Atole is a corn-based drink served rich, thick, and warm. These are usually served with the Rosca de Reyes. Other traditional foods for the feast of the Epiphany are black beans and rice, soups, and salads that highlight yucca, nopales (cactus leaf), and plantains. Some sort of slow-cooked meat is usually on the menu, often chicken or pork.
While Mexican immigrant communities in the U.S. celebrate Christmas “the American way,” many still preserve the traditions of Three Kings’ Day.
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