Three Kings' Day or Dia de Los Reyes: What the Holiday Means to Christians

For Thousands in Latin American, Three Kings' Day Extends Christmas Into January.

Christmas doesn't end on Dec. 25 for thousands of Christians in Latin America and Spain, who celebrate Three Kings' Day, also known as Dia de Los Reyes.

The Jan. 6 extravaganza marks the adoration shown for the baby Jesus by the three kings who traveled to the manger, a group who are often referred to as the wise men or the Magi. The holiday, too, goes by the alternate names Feast of the Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas and Little Christmas.

According to the New Testament's Book of Matthew, the men found their way to the heavenly newborn by following a bright star in the east. They traversed the desert for 12 days on camels to bestow three gifts to the divine child.

The gold offered by one visitor symbolized Christ's standing as king of the Jews. Frankincense, a treasured tree resin used in religious services and for medicinal purposes, was meant to honor the newborn's holy status as the son of God. Myrrh, often used as an embalming and anointing oil, is believed to have represented the ultimate death of Jesus on the cross.

Today, the event is celebrated in Latin cultures with a host of gifts and food traditions. Children are told to leave their shoes by the door, like stockings on the chimney, so the three kings can leave them presents. Offerings of salt and grass for weary camels are also left, like cookies and milk for Santa.

Parades and plays are staged, with the day being as important to Latin Christians as Christmas itself. In Mexico, bakers fashion a mile-long "rosca del rey," a sweet bread that symbolizes a crown and sometimes contains a hidden baby Jesus doll, like a Mardi Gras King cake. The person who finds it is said to have good fortune in the new year.

Crowds gather in Mexico for a piece of Epiphany cake. - Getty

The "Epiphany" title of the celebration also comes from the Book of Matthew. "It has to do with appearance of the person we believe to be the savior of the world," Clifton Daniel, dean of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, told "The three kings come to worship him, and manifest him to the whole world ... So it's really a revelation of a divine person to a larger audience."

In Puerto Rico, adherents go to door to door, playing instruments and delivering small gifts to their neighbors, spreading the good news of the wise men. In turn, the neighbors sometimes open their homes offering food and drinks to the traveling musicians, not unlike the tradition of caroling.

But like holiday celebrations the world over, once the eating and the singing and the parades are done, the day is really about spending time with family and feeling the comfort of their love and laughter.