On the twelfth day of Christmas, January 6, we celebrate Three Kings Day! Celebrated most in Spain and Latin America, but also across Europe, “El Dia de los Reyes”, as it’s called in Spanish, marks the adoration of baby Jesus by the three wise men.
History of Three Kings Day
In Mexico and many other Latin American countries, Santa Clause isn’t as popular as he is in the United States. Rather, it is the three wise men who are the bearers of gifts and leave presents in or near the shoes of small children. The holiday is also known by the name Epiphany and dates back to the 4th century. A grand feast would be held on this day to honor the occasion of Jesus’ baptism and to pay homage to the three wise men.
Many believe mysterious events preceded Jesus’ birth with perhaps the most notable being the appearance of the star in Bethlehem. This new star appeared in the evening sky just prior to the arrival of Jesus. Three wise men, or Magi as they were known, whose names were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, traveled a far distance to pay homage to Christ. They brought with them fine gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Three Kings Day, or El Dia de Reyes, remains an important holiday for Latin America. In addition to gift-giving, there is also a culinary treat that is specific to the holiday. Known as Rosca de Reyes (King’s Cake), this holiday dessert is a symbolic pastry. Shaped in a circle to signify a king’s crown, this sweet bread holds a special surprise. Inside is a small plastic figurine representing the baby Jesus. Whoever finds this token is obligated to host an upcoming party for the occasion Dia de la Condelaria (Candlemas Day) which occurs each year on February 2.
Three Kings Day timeline
The twelfth day of Christmas
Revisions of the General Roman Calendar made the Three Kings Day date to some extent variable, assigning the celebration of the day to occur on the Sunday between January 2 and 8, though it is still more widely celebrated on January 6, 12 days after Christmas.
- 385 AD
The pilgrim Egeria described a celebration in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which she called "Epiphany" that commemorated the Nativity.
- December 25, 380 AD
St. Gregory of Nazianzus referred to the day as "the Theophany", saying that the day commemorates the holy nativity of Christ.
- 200 AD
From Rome to Egypt
Though Three Kings Day originated in the Greek speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire, Clement of Alexandria wrote that followers of Basilides in Egypt also celebrated the day of Jesus' baptism.
Three King's Day Traditions
Three King's Day Statistics
Three Kings Day FAQs
Why do we celebrated Three Kings Day?
Three Kings Day is considered the end of Christmas celebrations, representing the day the Three Wise Men gave gifts to Jesus Christ.
What do they eat on Three Kings Day?
A traditional Three Kings Day meal consists of a starter of soup or salad, a main course of picadillo meat with rice and beans (though some families exchange beans for corn or peas), and a King’s cake for dessert.
Is Three Kings Day a religious holiday?
Three Kings Day is a religious Christian and Catholic holiday mostly celebrated in Latin America and Spain.
Three Kings Day Activities
Get a “Rosca de Reyes”
The King Cake tradition is alive in New Orleans as well as across South America, and recipes to make one are found fairly easily online. Imagine a deliciously sweet cake with cinnamon and sugary sauce, with a variety of fillings depending on how decadent you’re feeling.
Read the Bible
If you’re going to celebrate a Christian festival, why not read the gospel it’s all based on. Twelfth night (Epiphany) marks the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist. The word “Epiphany" also means “manifestation" and celebrates the revelation of God in human form as Jesus Christ. Start at Matthew 2:11, and see what happens.
Jump in some freezing cold water
In Prague, there’s a traditional Three Kings swim in the Vltava River. People wear speedos, some of them wear crowns, and then they jump from a barge into the water. Afterwards they drink mulled wine and eat delicious, warming Czech snacks.
Why We Love Three Kings Day
A reason for more gifts
Christmas isn’t the end of presents! In Europe, children look forward to receiving more gifts on Three Kings Day, lining their shoes up outside their doors so the Three Kings will know to leave their gifts inside.
An excuse for more eating
Three Kings Day is celebrated in South America with a delicious dinner crowned with a “Rosca de Reyes” or King Cake for dessert. The “Rosca de Reyes” is a round cake with a plastic Jesus figurine hidden inside, and the person at the party who finds the baby Jesus has to make tamales for everyone on the Day of the Candles, which comes on February 2.
It has fun traditions
Many families leave a box of grass or hay and some water for the Three Kings’ camels (and horses and elephants) to eat. The camels usually leave a trail of hay behind that children can follow to find their gifts.
Three Kings Day dates