Discovering the magic of Three Kings Day, from Puerto Rico to the US

The three kings.
The three kings.
Image: AP Photo/Herminio J. Rodriguez
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My family has held onto many of its holiday traditions since my grandparents migrated to New York from Puerto Rico in the 1950s. You won’t find ham or mashed potatoes in our holiday spreads. Pernil, or roasted pork shoulder, and pasteles, a banana- and root-vegetable pastry that’s stuffed with meat, are at the center of our Christmas feasts.

Day 6 of Quartz’s 25 Days of Exchange
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There is one major difference between how my family celebrates Christmas now, and how my grandparents celebrated it as children back on the island, however. Our winter holidays now both culminate and conclude with Christmas Day. But in Puerto Rico, Christmas is merely the midpoint of the holiday season. It extends through Jan. 6—the 12th day of Christmas—which is known as El Día de Los Reyes or Three Kings Day.

Three Kings Day commemorates the biblical journey of the three kings—Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior—who followed a star that appeared in the sky on Christmas Day all the way to Bethlehem, where they discovered and offered gifts to baby Jesus.

The holiday is nearly as significant as Christmas in many Spanish-speaking regions like Puerto Rico, Spain, and Latin America, and is also celebrated in other predominately Christian nations like Russia.

My grandfather said Three Kings Day was a long and raucous affair back on the island.

The build up to the holiday would begin right after Christmas with the parrandas, when people would go door to door, usually late at night, singing religious folk songs called aguinaldos, playing instruments, and offering small gifts to their neighbors. The neighbors, in turn, would open up their homes, offering food and drink. The Latin custom is similar to caroling in the US. I’m told it is still common on the island today.

Three Kings Day itself was celebrated over two days, like Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, my grandfather said. Many workplaces would close, or let their employees leave early. And, like any good holiday, it was accompanied by parades, feasts, and gift giving.

On the evening before Three Kings Day, which is known as Vispera de Reyes, children would leave shoe boxes of hay or grass underneath their beds for the kings’ camels to enjoy after their long journey. (It’s comparable to the custom of leaving cookies out for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.) In the morning, the hay would be gone, and the boxes would be stuffed with candies, nuts, or small toys—gifts from the three kings.

Some people on the island go all out for Three Kings Day and give larger presents then than they do on Christmas, said Bianca Ortiz Declet, director of exhibitions at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture in Chicago.

“Three Kings Day for us is even bigger than Christmas,” she said. “It is very special.”

While gift giving on Three Kings Day is normally meant for children, Ortiz Declet said her parents still leave presents under her bed each Jan. 6. She returns to the island to each year celebrate with them.

“There’s always a family gathering, there are presents under the bed, even if I’m a grown up,” she said.

As with all traditions, some inevitably fall by the wayside over time, while others are preserved for generations.

My grandparents, unlike Ortiz Declet and her family, did not carry on the traditions of Three Kings Day after they migrated to the mainland. The holiday wasn’t widely celebrated in the US at the time. It was also overshadowed by the spectacle of Christmas. And US businesses didn’t close for Three Kings like they did in Puerto Rico, which put a damper on celebrations.

My mother said she never celebrated Three Kings Day. And my father’s oldest sister, my aunt, only vaguely remembers leaving boxes out for the kings’ camels as a young girl.

But the parrandas stuck. My dad, who was raised in the Pentecostal faith, would celebrate the holidays in the streets with my grandfather’s congregation in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which had a large Puerto Rican population when he was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s.

Many Puerto Ricans, like my grandparents, who came to the US during the 1940s and ’50s, when migration from the island exploded, ended up in New York where they landed factory jobs. They created communities in places like Spanish Harlem and Bushwick. And some brought Three Kings Day with them.

Three Kings Day in New York
Three Kings Day parade in New York City.
Image: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

For nearly 40 years, El Museo del Barrio, a Latin-American cultural center in Spanish Harlem, has hosted a lively Three Kings Day parade that features parrandas, live camels and sheep, and colorful puppets. There’s also a community parade in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as well as in several other major US cities with large Hispanic populations like Chicago. There, the Division Street Business Development Association, The Puerto Rican Cultural Center, and others sponsor a parade that ends at the city’s Humboldt Park, where gifts are handed out to children in the neighborhood. And since 2012, Disneyland in California has held three-day long celebrations for Three Kings Day.

Disney is not the only US brand to tap into the Latin American holiday in recent years.

As the share of Hispanics in the US ballooned over the last two decades, retailers and advertisers gradually began adding Three Kings Day to their holiday calendars in an effort to reach the country’s growing segment of Hispanic shoppers—and extend the holiday shopping season.

“Three Kings really makes [the holidays] different and more ownable to you as a Hispanic, because not everybody celebrates that,” said Gabriel Garcia, executive creative director at the multicultural marketing agency LatinWorks. “That makes it very, very attractive to marketers” who want to reach Latinos during the holidays.

Kids are the main gift-giving focus on Three Kings Day. So some toy makers and retailers like Mattel and Toys R Us have run promotions and marketing campaigns around the holiday in the past.

Walmart has also recognized Three Kings Day in its marketing and promotions focused on kids and specialty foods for more than a decade, according to ThinkNow Research, a multicultural marketing research firm that works with Walmart. JCPenney started running promotions around Three Kings Day in 2014. And Target highlighted family celebrations during Three Kings Day on its blog last year.

“Three Kings is a funny celebration because it is so engrained in Latin cultures, it seems that it’s an amazing opportunities for retailers to tap into it,” said Catarina Goncalves, planning director at advertising agency Grupo Gallegos.

But the holiday hasn’t been very commercialized in the US yet. Those retailers and marketers that do promote Three Kings Day have pretty minimal marketing efforts around it—an online video here, and in-store promotion there, maybe a banner ad.

“It’s still a holiday that doesn’t get a lot of awareness,” said Yañez at ThinkNow.

Roughly half of Hispanics in the US celebrate Three Kings Day, according to a September survey of by ThinkNow. The firm polled 1,250 US respondents including 500 nationally representative US Hispanics, 40% of which said Spanish was their dominant language, 25% of which were bilingual, and the remainder of which spoke predominately English.

The holiday is celebrated more commonly among foreign-born Hispanics, which make up about 35% of Hispanics in the US, the study noted. Fifty-eight percent of Hispanics surveyed whose dominant language was Spanish said they planned to celebrate Three Kings Day this year, as did 61% of bilinguals, compared to 27% of primarily English-speaking Hispanics, who were more acculturated.

“[Hispanics] are so avid of keeping that tradition because it connects to who they are,” said Goncalves at Grupo Gallegos. “It’s a link to Hispanic culture and Hispanic values. We think that it’s very unique way of conveying, ‘this is who we are.'”

Garcia at LatinWorks, who is of Mexican descent and lives in Texas, said he chose to carry on the tradition of Three Kings Day in the US because of his parents, who immigrated here.

“It was so important to my family and to my parents,” said Garcia. “When you grow up in a community with other Hispanics, the fact that you can partake in these things that really form part of the community, it’s something that’s enjoyable and fun to convivir, as we say, to interact with people that have the same traditions.”