By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Santa Claus may be back in the North Pole catching up on lost sleep and giving his reindeer and elves a well-deserved winter vacation, but here in Mexico the Christmas season isn’t over yet.
Jan. 6 – that celebrated Twelfth Day of Christmas – officially marks the Epiphany, the day when Christ was visited by the Magi, and each year, the night before this religious holiday, children across Mexico set their shoes outside their bedroom doors in anticipation of toys and candies brought to them by Melchor, Gaspar and Balthasar.
Come midnight, the Three Wise Men visit the homes of the children and fill their shoes with gifts and surprises, depending on how well behaved the youngsters have been over the last 12 months.
And just like Old Saint Nick, the kings have been alleged to leave coal and sticks in the shoes of the naughtiest kids.
However, since most children in Mexico are extremely well mannered and obedient to their parents, there have so far been no officially confirmed cases of these misfortunate deliveries in more than a decade.
The Día de los Reyes Magos (Day of the Three Kings) is, in fact, a far more traditional holiday in Mexico than Christmas, and its observance dates back to the early colonial times, when the children of the first conquistadores would fête the date with a lavish meal followed by special King’s Day cake.
That cake – known as the Rosca de Reyes – underwent a number of transformations over the years, but is still considered a vital element in the Día de Reyes celebration in Mexico.
Although the first Mexican roscas were basically sugared loaves of cornmeal, the King’s Day cake today is usually an egg bread baked in the shape of a crown and decorated with candied fruits and nuts.
A small figurine in the shape of a baby is baked inside the dough to represent the Christ child.
Originally, these figurines, which symbolize the hiding of Christ from Herod’s armies, were fashioned out of porcelain or glass, but nowadays they tend to be mass-produced bits of plastic.
Tradition holds that whoever gets the slice of cake with the baby figure is obliged to sponsor a tamale and atole party for all present on Candlemas Day on Feb. 2 and dress the Christ child figure of the nearest Nativity scene.
Historically, the observance of the Epiphany had its origins in the Eastern Christian Church, and commemorated both the arrival of the Magi and the baptism of Christ.
The earliest reference to the Epiphany as a Christian feast was in the year 361, when Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that it was on Jan. 6 that “Christ was revealed to the gentiles.”
The holiday is still celebrated by both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, but for Western Christians the feast primarily commemorates the coming of the Magi, while in the East the feast marks the baptism of Christ in the Jordan River.
Whatever the religious significance of the Epiphany, in Mexico it’s a time when children can expect toys and surprises from three merry kings who are a far more integral part of the national culture than Kris Kringle could ever hope to be.
So move over, Santa, here come the Magi, and they have you outnumbered three to one.