By WILLIAM COLBERT
WASHINGTON, Dec. 16 – The average American might know little about Three Kings Day, but to many Latin Americans, the celebration known as Dia de los Reyes is not only a religious observance but part of their identity.
“The Three Kings holiday is a mixture of culture and religion; there is coherence there,” said Isidra Molina, pastoral assistant at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the District’s predominantly Latino Columbia Heights community.
In Spanish tradition, Jan. 6 marks the day when the three kings, Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, arrived on horse, camel and elephant to worship and bring gifts to the baby Jesus after following a star in the heavens.
The journey of the three kings is the central theme for many Latin American celebrations. In Puerto Rico, the day is commemorated with a mass exodus from the capitol, San Juan, to the Monumento a Los Tres Reyes Magos (Monument of the Three Kings) in the small town of Juana Diaz.
The pilgrimage and ensuing celebration fills the city of Juana Diaz with people dancing to Puerto Rican folk music (plena), playing tambourines and enjoying food typical of the holiday season, said Rocio Revollo, a recent graduate of The Antillean University in Puerto Rico and current resident of Winchester, Va. Favorite foods include arroz con gandule (rice with pigeon peas) and pasteles (corn meal or yuca dough filled with meat) wrapped in banana leaves.
The celebration is not only a religious observance but also an expression of her culture, Revollo said. “In Puerto Rico, many people partook in the celebration regardless of their religious beliefs,” she said.
Molina recalls a similar celebration in her native El Salvador. There, people honor the day by having a procession from a certain point in the city to the church. Prior to the trek, three young boys are chosen to dress up as the three kings to re-enact the journey. A young girl and boy are also chosen to dress as Mary and Joseph to receive the gift-bearing kings. Once the travelers arrive at the church, they present gifts and poems in honor of Jesus. After a large mass, there is food, music and festivities.
Molina has been with the Shrine of the Sacred Heart for 18 years, but has been involved in her religion throughout her life. One of her fondest memories of the holiday was being chosen to play Mary in the procession to the church in El Salvador.
“We had fun. I remember some of the poems to this day,” Molina said.
Revollo remembers the excitement she felt as a child the night before the holiday. Reminiscent of the U.S. tradition of leaving cookies out for Santa on Christmas Eve, Puerto Rican children lay out grass in shoe boxes for the bearers of the kings on Jan. 5. They leave the shoe boxes under the bed, where gifts are delivered overnight.
Children get excited to pull grass from the lawn while thinking of the gifts, said Revollo.
The Shrine of the Sacred Heart commemorates Dias de los Reyes with a large Epiphany mass in which three young boys dressed as kings offer gifts in honor of Jesus. The church stores all toys donated throughout the year to distribute to the children after the mass. Molina said thousands will attend the mass this year.
To see images taken of the journey from San Juan to Juana Diaz, visit: