Childhood traditions have a way of becoming a part of your soul. The smells, the sounds, the tastes… they all help to mold you into the person you are and become a part of your life. Much like back to school shopping or birthday cake, my childhood traditions have become something I don’t question. They just are. And every year, without missing a beat, we celebrate them. It’s just what we do.
In January, our family traditions revolve around Los Reyes Magos.
Who?, you ask.
Los Reyes Magos, The Three Magi (also known as The Three Kings). Their story is well known and the source of movies and documentaries, picture books and school plays. If you are lucky enough to grow up in Mexico, January 6th, the Dia de Los Reyes Magos, means presents and, more importantly, Rosca de Reyes.
Just as the Three Magi each took a gift to the baby Jesus, Los Reyes Magos bring children gifts as well. In some parts of Mexico, January 6th is a bigger deal than December 25th (January 6th is seen as the traditional celebration day and December 25th as an imported holiday- gift wise). In Tijuana, January 6th is the day that many charities give out gifts to the poor children in town. Major organizations provide parties and festivities for the people to celebrate and enjoy. Children wake up to find the shoes they left outside their bedroom full of toys (yes, again, if the parents have the means). And every year, without fail, the bakeries and supermarkets are full of Rosca de Reyes.
What?, you ask.
Rosca de Reyes. Three Kings bread.
The Rosca de Reyes is a rectangular, ring shapped sweet bread. It is traditionally topped with dried fig strips, candied lemon peel slices, chopped candied cherries, and confectioner sugar. It is a delicious treat with a hidden surprise. You see, baked into the bread, you will find 6-8 plastic “babies” (meant to represent the baby Jesus). In Mexican tradition, finding the baby Jesus in your slice of rosca de reyes means that you (and the other people who get a baby in their slice) will host a party on February 2nd. Each “winner” is to provide a piece of the party: tamales, beans, sweets, etc. It is part of the fun to cut your own slice and check to see if you got a baby in your piece, and an honor if you did.
All of this pomp and circumstance is rooted in religious beliefs and history. Catholicism is a big part of Mexican identity and the Dia de los Reyes Magos (Day of the Magi) is part of this identity. January 6th is the Day of the Epiphany, the day the Three Magi reached the baby Jesus. February 2nd is the Dia de la Candelaria, Candleman’s day. In Catholic tradition, this day is celebrated as the Purification of the Virgin (as it falls 40 days after Christmas). And every year, without fail, families celebrate El Dia de los Reyes Magos.
Some years we buy a rosca, other years we even bake our own!
For our family, this tradition comes with three blessings: there’s the religious celebration, getting together with loved ones to enjoy our own rosca, and leftovers. Much like my American husband loves Thanksgiving leftovers, my Mexican family looks forward to the day after the Dia de los Reyes Magos. That’s the day all the bakeries and supermarkets find themselves with leftover roscas (sweet bread) and no true audience. The roscas go on sale, half off, sometimes 75% off. In our sweet bread loving family, it’s like a third Christmas morning. That’s right. I am not ashamed to admit it. We go out and buy more roscas. And yes, we eat them all.
The smell, the look, the taste and the fun of the Rosca de Reyes is ingrained in me, and in my daughter. I see her eyes pop open and shine when she sees the roscas at the supermarket this week and I know she will delight in having some on the 6th AND the 7th.
The Meaning behind the Rosca de Reyes
The circular shape of the Rosca de Reyes represents the infinite and never ending love of God. The “baby Jesus” hidden inside every rosca is there to remind us of how the baby Jesus had to hide from King Herod in the killing of the innocents. And the colorful fruit toppings symbolize the crown jewels of the Reyes Magos, the three Magi, who journeyed to find the baby Jesus.
Tradition says that the rosca de reyes came to Mexico via Spain in the 16th century.
Ready to try some Rosca de Reyes? Head to your nearest Latino supermarket or bakery and there’s a chance you might find some there. Alternatively, you can come on over to Tijuana, Mexico and I can guarantee you will enjoy a delicious rosca. Maybe I’ll even see you at the supermarket bakery!
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