Every year, I listen to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” played on the radio or on the television. Every year, I challenge myself to remember the order of the different gifts and, every year, I usually start circling the drain shortly after the golden rings. I sing that song every year without putting much thought into it, but in recent years, I find my curiosity buzzing with holiday mysteries. Like, what is an advent calendar? Why do people put candles in their windows in my neighborhood every Christmas? And, of course, what exactly are the Twelve Days of Christmas?
When most Americans think of Christmas, we think of two things: Gifts and the baby Jesus. But it wasn’t so long ago that many Christians did not exchange gifts on Christmas day; they were reserved for 12 days later, on Three Kings Day, or el dia de los Santos Reyes. The Twelve Days of Christmas are the 12 days that it took the Magi (also known as the three kings or wise men) to travel to Bethlehem to present the newborn Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Now, maybe this is common knowledge in most Christian households, but it was news to me!
Three Kings Day is popular in many areas of Latin America, but not particularly celebrated in the United States. Most Americans get swept up in the commercial aspect of Christmas, and the shopping that leads up to Christmas Day; we have not kept up the traditions of celebrating the Epiphany. These traditions are new to me, but I hear they are enjoying a revival among Puerto Ricans on the East Coast. Some Mexican celebrants polish their shoes and place them outside, in the hopes that gifts will be left in them. Many Puerto Rican celebrants place grass in a box and leave the box under the bed to wait for gifts. Often, the Epiphany is celebrated with a Rosca de Reyes—a sweet bread formed in a ring-shape that has a porcelain or plastic baby Jesus baked inside.
by Melissa Garcia Logan