The History Behind Three Kings Day in Puerto Rico

Three Kings Day in Puerto Rico

TripSavvy / Ashley Nicole DeLeon

 

Three Kings Day is to Puerto Rico what Christmas is to the US: a holiday rooted in religion that people now celebrate with social gatherings, food, and gift giving. Los Reyes Magos, as the locals call it, is Christmas with a Latin twist. The concept of Santa Claus is left behind for Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar, together known as the Three Wise Men.

The holiday is widely celebrated in the Latin world, but those celebrations—like Christmas'—have evolved over the years. Nowadays, Puerto Ricans pay homage to the kings with carnivals, parades, fairs, and feasts that tourists are welcome to participate in, too.

Biblical Background

Like in America, Puerto Rico's primary winter holiday is centered around the birth of Christ. In the Latin World, however, these three men are perhaps more celebrated than Jesus, himself. As the Bible story goes, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar were drawn to Christ's birth by a mysterious light, but they arrived late, which is why the 12 days of Christmas is celebrated following December 25 (Americans traditionally start this countdown on December 12). At the end of it, on January 6, is what they call Epiphany, also known as feast day or the Adoration of the Magi.

Just as Santa Claus makes his rounds with a sack of presents, the Three Wise Men also bore gifts in the form of gold, myrrh, and frankincense.

Puerto Rican Traditions

Three Kings Day is one of the most important holidays on the Puerto Rican calendar. Traditionally, the island (and most of the Latin world) marked the eve of January 6, rather than December 25, as the day of exchanging gifts. In the olden days, children would gather grass, hay, or straw in shoeboxes for the Magi's horses or camels much like children in the US leave cookies and milk for Santa and his reindeer.

Good kids are promised to be rewarded with presents and candy on Three Kings Day, while naughty kids run the risk of receiving dirt and charcoal (sound familiar?). These days, gifts are given on Christmas Day, but a smaller, often humbler present is also reserved for Epiphany.

The Three Kings are a mainstay of Puerto Rican arts and crafts as they are among the most popular subjects for santos—handmade figurines of saints and other religious persons—and ever-present in practically every souvenir shop on the island.

Visiting During Three Kings Day

Expect to be surrounded by parades, festivals, and other merriments if you plan to be in Puerto Rico between Three Kings Day and Epiphany. The district of Old San Juan, specifically, is known to throw a beloved annual festival at Luis Muñoz Marín Park. The highlight of this event is when the Three Kings, themselves, make an appearance. They hail from Juana Díaz, the unofficial hometown of the Magi, and travel all around the island during the holiday season. Their stop in Old San Juan, though, is arguably the grandest of them all.

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