January 6th is Three Kings Day in Mexico, known in Spanish as el Día de los Reyes Magos or El Día de Reyes. This is Epiphany on the church calendar, the 12th day after Christmas (sometimes referred to as Twelfth Night), when Christians commemorate the arrival of the Magi or "Wise Men" who arrived bearing gifts for the Christ Child. The word Epiphany means revelation or manifestation and the holiday celebrates the revelation of the baby Jesus to the world (represented by the Magi).
Like many celebrations, this holiday was introduced in Mexico by Catholic friars during the colonial period, and has in many cases taken on a local flair. In Mexico, children receive gifts on this day, brought by the three kings, known in Spanish as los Reyes Magos, whose names are Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltazar. Some children receive gifts from both Santa Claus on December 24 or 25 and from the Kings on January 6, but Santa is seen as an imported custom, and the traditional day for Mexican children to receive gifts is January 6.
Arrival of the Magi
In the days preceding Three Kings Day, Mexican children write letters to the three kings requesting a toy or gift that they would like to receive. Sometimes the letters are placed in helium-filled balloons and released, so the requests reach the kings through the air. You may see men dressed up as the three kings posing for photos with children in Mexican town squares, parks, and shopping centers. On the night of January 5th, the figures of the Wise Men are placed in the Nacimiento or nativity scene. Traditionally children would leave out their shoes with a bit of hay in them to feed the animals of the Magi (they are often shown with a camel and sometimes also with an elephant). When the children would wake up in the morning, their gifts appeared in place of the hay. Nowadays, like Santa Claus, the Kings tend to place their gifts under the Christmas tree if the family has one up, or near the nativity scene.
If you're traveling in Mexico at this time of year, you may find special markets selling toys set up in the days between New Year's and January 6. These will usually stay open all night on January 5 for those parents who are looking for a last minute gift for their children.
Rosca de Reyes
On Kings Day it is customary for families and friends to gather to drink hot chocolate or atole (a warm, thick, usually corn-based drink) and eat Rosca de Reyes, a sweet bread shaped like a wreath, with candied fruit on top, and a figurine of a baby Jesus baked inside. The person who finds the figurine is expected to host a party on Día de la Candelaria (Candlemas), celebrated on February 2nd, when tamales are customarily served.
Read more about Rosca de Reyes, its symbolism, and how to make, or where to buy one.
Bring a Gift
There are many campaigns to bring toys to underprivileged children in Mexico for Three Kings Day. If you will be visiting Mexico at this time of year and would like to participate, pack a few books or toys that don't need batteries in your suitcase to donate. Your hotel or resort can likely direct you to a local organization doing a toy drive, or contact Pack with a Purpose to see if they have any drop-off centers in the area you will be visiting.
End of Christmas Break
In Mexico, the Christmas holiday usually lasts until January 6, and depending on the day of the week that it falls, schools go back in session on January 7 or 8. The Christmas season in the traditional church calendar lasts until February 2nd (Candlemas), so some Mexicans will leave their Christmas decorations up until that date.