Editor’s note: January 6th is Three Kings Day. Magdalena Mieri, director of the Program in Latino History and Culture at the museum, shares her personal connection to the holiday as well as two artifacts from the museum’s collection.
Growing up in my home country, Argentina, I remember anxiously waiting for Los Reyes Magos (The Three Kings) to arrive. We would prepare all day on January 5th to greet and receive them that night, in the early hours of the 6th. We baked cookies, gathered hay, and filled three buckets of water for the thirsty camels. You see, the camels the Reyes ride are as important and magical as the Reyes themselves! A very important part of the day was spent polishing the shoes we were going to leave by the window to show the Reyes where to leave the presents they were bringing to us. Of course, my sisters and I always fell asleep before seeing them and the next morning it was a mix of enjoyment to see the gifts they had left us and sadness that once again, we missed seeing the Reyes and their camels.
Three Kings Day is an important celebration among Latino families in the United States. It is celebrated throughout Latin America and each country celebrates it in a special way. It is both a religious celebration and a cultural one. According to Ivonne Figueroa, in her article "Los Reyes Magos," published by El Boricua, the story of the Three Kings comes originally from a chapter in the book of Matthew of the Bible which talks about three wise men or kings who journeyed, following a star, to meet the newborn Jesus. Along the way, they stopped to see Herod, the king of Judea, who was threatened by the birth of Jesus and commanded the kings to first find Jesus and then tell him where Jesus was.
The kings found Jesus in Bethlehem and they brought him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There is no record in the Bible of the names of these kings, but it has been determined that each came from a different place and brought a different gift. Melchior was known as the sultan of Arabia. He brought gold, the symbol of a king. Balthazar was the ruler of Ethiopia and brought myrrh, the symbol of man. Gaspar, the third king, was known as the emperor of the Orient. He was said to have traveled the farthest and brought frankincense, the symbol of God.
Music is a very important element of the celebration of Reyes Magos, parrandas (parades) are organized to go house to house singing villancicos (carols) and playing instruments. This tradition is particularly important in Puerto Rico. And it is from Puerto Rico that the museum has a unique and marvelous collection of Reyes Magos santos (wood carvings) that were originally collected by Teodoro Vidal, a Puerto Rican collector of both "high art" and everyday objects, as well and musical instruments used during the parrandas.
It is quite fascinating to observe regional differences during the festivities, and how each culture has adapted specific elements. For example, as you see from this artifact, the Reyes are not riding camels, but burros, and sometimes they do not even ride animals. Can you guess why? Of course! Camels are not as popular in the Americas as they are in Middle East, where the story of the Reyes originated!