Thursday, January 5, 2012

Los Tres Reyes Magos: The Three Wise Men

When I was a little girl, the arrival of the Tres Reyes Magos meant something very special to me. It meant I had a second chance at getting more gifts after Christmas.
The biblical meaning for me was a short story about a horrible king who wanted baby Jesus dead, and about three wise men walking across the desert to find the new king, baby Jesus, in a manger and offer him gifts. The images I conjured in my mind as a child then, were aided by those of the animated yearly broadcast, on national TV, of the Little Drummer Boy.  But, I also remember celebrating Christmas in my mother and father’s hometown of Zacatecas, in Mexico and in Juarez, Mexico, where one of my aunts lived.

All would put out these wonderful miniature replicas of the town of Bethlehem in their homes. The nativity scene would be placed at the edge of this tiny town. I also remember the Posadas, our Mexican version of caroling. It’s a reenactment of Joseph and Mary going from Inn to Inn looking for lodging in Bethlehem before Jesus was born. We were a procession of aunts, grandparents, cousins and friends going from door to door in our neighborhood singing the pleas of Joseph and Mary for lodging. The owners of the house would sing back from inside letting us know there was no room at the Inn. Off we went to the next house carrying candles to light the way. With children in the group, the procession was never smooth sailing. There would be taunting and pushing and someone singing completely out of tune. There would be wounds from painful, hot wax on hands and the occasional odor of burnt hair due to someone getting too close to a lit candle or sparkler.  At the end of our procession the participants were let into the final house and rewarded with brown paper bags full of peanuts, oranges and candy. We’d drink spiced tea and eat bunuelos, a flat pastry topped with brown sugar and cinnamon. On Christmas Day, someone would pass the baby Jesus figurine around and have everyone in the room kiss him before he was placed in his bed in the manger. This ritual signified the birth of Jesus.

In Mexico, January 6th, El dia de los Tres Reyes Magos, was truly the day to give and receive gifts. It is the day Melchor, Gaspar y Baltasar, the three wise men, arrived at the manger to meet Jesus and offered him their gifts.  Instead of writing a letter to Santa Clause, I remember writing a letter to one of the three wise men asking for the toys I wanted and waking up to find a gift.  On this day, we would all come together again to eat tamales, drink chocolate caliente, and find a little figure of baby Jesus in a Rosca De Reyes, our version of a bunt cake. The hiding of the plastic baby Jesus in the Rosca symbolized the effort to hide him from El Rey Herodas.  The knife used to cut the cake signified the great danger baby Jesus was in.

The book of Matthew in the Bible includes none of these traditions in explaining the birth of Christ and the visit of the Three Wise Men. In fact, according to the Bible, the Three Wise Men do not arrive at the manger. They arrive at a house to worship baby Jesus. It does not indicate how many wise men there were either. 

In the Bible, King Herod, the king of Jerusalem learns wise men from the east have arrived in the city after following a star that symbolized the King of Jews had been born. Herod secretly meets with the wise men asking them to find baby Jesus and let him know where he is because he wants to worship him too.  After meeting baby Jesus, the wise men are divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod and depart for their country another way. When King Herod finds out he orders that all the male children two years old and under in Bethlehem and surrounding districts be put to death.  Then an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to hide Jesus in Egypt. When King Herod dies, another angel tells Joseph in a dream that it is safe to return to Israel.

El dia de Los Reyes Magos falls on the twelfth day of Christmas. Also known as the epiphany. It means manifestation or revelation. And is linked to Western Christianity with the visit of the wise men to the Christ child. Through them, Christ reveals himself to the gentiles.

As a child I may not have had all the facts regarding the true meaning of Christmas.  But, what I do remember is that when I celebrated Christmas in Mexico, it was not about going shopping, and receiving a multitude of gifts. In fact, I got only one gift and I appreciated it more than anything. It was not about Santa Clause or elves on a shelf. I can’t even remember putting too much emphasis on trimming a Christmas tree, although we did have one. My memories of those times are of laughter, aromas of delicious food, and of generations of one family coming together and gathering around a miniature nativity scene to take part in the reenactment of an event that would change the world.

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