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The Boston Globe

The Day Of Kings In Latin Cultures, The Celebration Of The 12th Day Of Christmas Is Last, But Far From Least


November 10, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Boston Globe. All rights reserved. 

As a child growing up in Jamaica Plain, Tomas Gonzalez, Mayor Thomas M. Menino's liaison to the Latin community, didn't observe any of the traditions associated with Three Kings Day. But now that he has children of his own, the feast and the customs that go with it have taken on a personal importance.

"Three Kings Day brought me back to my roots," he says. Gonzalez's wife, Dalia, is from Puerto Rico, where the 12th day of Christmas, or Epiphany, is celebrated on January 6 with gifts for children, processions in the streets, and feasting for all. She introduced Tomas to the traditional observation, and the couple see the celebration as a way to keep their children, Taina Esperanza, 4, and Tomas Alejandro, 2, linked to their cultural legacy.

" Since I don't have the luxury of going to Puerto Rico," says Gonzalez, " the gifts that I give my children are little trinkets to remind them of their heritage - like a map, a picture, or a doll from Puerto Rico."

Three Kings Day, or Dia de los Reyes Magos, is an important holiday in many Latin countries, and many Latin Americans observe the celebration here. It is based on the biblical story of the three kings, or Magi, who arrived from the East bearing gifts for the Christ child. So, giving gifts to children - in the family and in the community - is pivotal to the celebration.

"On the eve of Three Kings Day," says Maria Alamo, director at the Hispanic Office of Planning and Evaluation, or HOPE, in Jamaica Plain, "children of Puerto Rican descent place boxes of cut grass along with bowls of water under their beds" for the kings' hungry and thirsty camels. The kings take the grass and the water and replace them with gifts.

The day itself is filled with festivities. Friends and relatives serenade all day, a tradition Alamo says is called parrandas. Carolers go from house to house and feast on traditional dishes such as rice with coconut milk, cinnamon, and honey and roast pig cooked on a spit.

At HOPE, the number of children who attend the celebration has grown so much in recent years that the event has moved from the organization's offices to Curtis Hall in Jamaica Plain. The highlight of the festivities is a pageant in which the children dress in eleborate costumes and reenact the arrival of the Magi.

Jose Duran, executive director of HOPE, says that the feast "is a link to self-identity. When you are knowingly appreciative of your heritage, it helps resolve the bicultural issues."

Dave Cortiella, director of Inquilinos Boricuas En Accion, or IBA, a community organization in the South End, is a second- generation Puerto Rican-American. He says he encountered some of the holiday traditions for the first time in 1976, when a group of Latino students at the Berklee College of Music couldn't go home for the holidays. The students would organize the parrandas.

"People would volunteer their houses, and the students would make a schedule and let the people know when they'd be coming," says Cortiella. "The expectations are good food, good drink, and then to be taken to the next house."

At IBA, Three Kings is celebrated with a full-scale program complete with a pageant, the arrival of the kings, and the distribution of 700 to 800 gifts for the children, followed by soup for about 900 people.

As HOPE's Duran puts it, "This feast day is much more about the link to the extended community."

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