Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil

El Día de los Reyes

January 6th, 2013 | Posted by Ian and Brianna in Celebrations | Food | Mexico | The Places We've Been

Yesterday at dusk we wandered to Aborrotes Lupita, the nearby grocery store, to pick up some tortillas and Tecate. The gentleman who runs the store was behind the counter and across from him on a stool was his teenage helper. Sitting on the display case next to the young man were three items new to the store since the day before. They looked like fruit cakes in the shape of wreaths, packaged, and with a little more bread than fruit.

“Qué es esto?” we asked our amigo of four days. The label appeared to feature a religious scene, but we couldn’t gather much else.

“Rosca,” he replied. We were at a loss. We did not know that word.

He and the old man, sensing our confusion, tried to clarify. The treat is for El Día de los Reyes, a holiday we were soon to find (though at the time, we couldn’t remember día feriado for holiday, so went with día especial instead) that would occur the next day, today, January 6th. After grabbing our goods and checking out, we headed home to do some research on this mystery celebration that seemed such a well-known custom here. What we found was familiar, but entirely new to us.

El Día de los Reyes translates to The Day of the Kings, and is alternatively referred to as El Día de los Tres Reyes Magos (The Day of the Three Magi) or Feast of the Epiphany. Marking the twelfth day of Christmas, for much of Latin America and Spain this day is the culmination of the Christmas season, and celebrates the day when the three Magi (Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar, representing Europe, Arabia, and Africa, respectively) arrived bearing their famous gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Many communities organize colorful costumed parades celebrating the arrival of los Reyes Magos.

In many places El Día de los Reyes, not Christmas itself, is the day of gift-giving and is attributed to the Three Wise Men, though Santa Claus has been making headway in recent years. After adding the figures for los Tres Reyes Magos to the nativity scene, children leave fruit, cookies, and milk for the night’s secret visitors (some families may even leave hay and water outside for the Magis’ beasts of burden), then go to bed in anticipation of the presents that will appear in, near, or under their shoes by the next morning. (As in other places, children who have misbehaved over the previous year may be anxious that they will receive a lump of coal instead.)

Rosca de Reyes

Perhaps the most interesting part of this holiday is the traditional consumption of a ring-shaped sweetbread, rosca de reyes (king’s ring), which is usually decorated with dried or candied fruit. It’s shape represents a king’s crown, and hidden inside is a small figurine of the baby Jesus. In the Mexican tradition, whoever’s slice of rosca de reyes contains the figurine is obligated to host a gathering on the upcoming Candlemas Day (Día de la Candelaria; February 2nd), complete with tamales and chocolate atole, a masa-based hot drink.

If you have experiences of your own or alternate traditions regarding El Día de los Reyes, we’d love to hear from you. Please be sure to share them in the comments section below.

Photo credit: By Itzcuauhtli (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

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