By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
While in Northern European Christian cultures, it is the the eve or day of Christ’s birth (Dec. 24 and Dec. 25, respectively) that is celebrated with special meals and an exchange of presents, here in Mexico, it is the Epiphany, or the commemoration of the anniversary of arrival of the Magi at Bethlehem, that is most associated with gift-giving, particularly for small children.
Known as the Día de los Reyes Magos (Three King’s Day), the holiday falls on Jan. 6 each year and is eagerly anticipated by children of all ages because, just as the Magi were believed to have brought gifts for the newborn Christ Child more than 2 millennium ago, the Three Wise Men of the East are alleged to arrive at the homes of well-behaved children shortly after midnight to fill their shoes with toys and sweets.
And while the Día de los Reyes is a time for presents for Mexican children, it also has a special meaning for adults.
The Epiphany is when preparations begin for the presentation of the ceramic Christ Child doll (which was placed in local Nativity sets on Christmas morning) to be presented throughout each town.
During the next next four weeks, members of the community will prepare a lavish garment for the doll and host a party for its presentation ceremony on Feb. 2.
In many rural areas, it is not uncommon for the clothing and presentation celebrations to represent an entire month’s salary.
Consequently, the cost and preparations are divided in a unique way with a special holiday bread consumed on the Epiphany.
This bread, a sweet, cakey ring of leavened egg dough crowned with candied fruits, is called a rosca de reyes (Three Kings’ bread).
Hidden inside the bread is a tiny porcelain, ceramic or heat-resistant plastic figurine of Baby Jesus.
When the bread is eaten, the person or the persons whose slice contains the doll is proclaimed the godparent of the Nativity doll and charged with the responsibly and cost of the Candlemas ceremony.
Whoever finds the doll is also expected to throw a party on the morning of Feb. 2, catered with sweet tamales and atole (hot rice milk).
In modern, urban Mexico, much of the religious Día de los Reyes and Día de la Candelaria practices have fallen by the wayside, but the rosca de reyes is still a favorite holiday treat, and nearly every home, school and office marks the Epiphany with a Kings’ Day bread.
And in keeping with the rural traditions, whoever finds the Christ Child figurine is responsible for supplying his family, friends or coworkers with a morning feast of tamales and atole come Feb. 2.
The rosca de reyes has long been associated with Mexican tradition, but the origins of this tasty bread seem to be linked to the ancient Roman Empire.
According to historians, during the month of December each year, the Romans held a festival in celebration of a holiday called Saturnalia.
As the name implies, Saturnalia was dedicated to Saturn, the youngest of the Titans and the major god who presided over agriculture and the harvesttime.
While the exact date of the weeklong Saturnalia celebration is not clear, scholars believe that it corresponded to the longest days of the year (measured by the presence of the sun) after the coming of the winter solstice, on Dec. 21 or 22.
In addition, the Romans enjoyed large, rounded cakes, decorated with dates, figs and honey, which were distributed to common people and slaves.
In the third century, the tradition of adding a dry fava bean to the cake was introduced, and the person who bit into the bean would be named the King of Kings for the remainder of the Saturnalia celebrations.
The tradition as we know it today comes from the Christianization of the holiday by the Spanish, who replaced the fava bean with a gold coin.
The tradition remained constant throughout the centuries in Spain until it was brought to Mexico in the 16th century, when the fava bean or coin was replaced by the figurine of Baby Jesus.
The holiday to this day remains an almost uniquely Hispanic tradition.