Right now (yes, at this exact moment, January 6), millions of Mexican children are playing with the toys the 3 kings brought them last night while they were sleeping. Anxious for the sun to come back from exile, these innocent creatures picture the iphone, xbox, and mac each King is supposed to provide. They see the presents wrapped in shining gift paper, reflecting the colourful lights around the plastic christmas tree beside.
In Mexico, you see, Santa Claus is optional. The 3 Kings, however, are mandatory. Three gifts are expected to be given to each child, since it is the 3 characters delivering — unless, of course, the parent(s) is(are) extremely poor. If this is the case, 0 to 1 gift will appear under the tree (or on a chair beside the child’s bed).
Small villages, like Tepoztlan (my hometown), celebrate at the Reyes church, built for the 3 Kings hundreds of years ago. People gather from everywhere in town to eat together the rosca de reyes, a bread-like cake decorated with dry fruits, shaped like an outlined oval, hiding plastic babies inside. People getting the baby in their slice has to donate tamales (a Mexican favourite) or hot chocolate on Epiphany Eve. Hot chocolate and black coffee were drank, and cheap cheap toys were handed to the children that were present.
January 6, elementary and pre-schools also provide material joy to their students. It is usual that the toys are donated by a wealthy old man that brought half a mountain in the communal land (like it happened in Tepoztlan, at least). Matel toys, like barbies and action men, are distributed according to the gender of the child. In grade 5 I changed my hot barbie princess for a sexy MaxSteel…he became popular among my collection of barbies as soon as they saw him.
But it is not in the gifts were the magic happens. At 7, I remember leaving buckets of water outside in the back yard for the non-human animals carrying Melchior, Gaspar and Baltazar (their respective Spanish names). The horse, elephant, and camel can get thirsty — never mind if they are well adapted to the dessert. I also left 3 cups of fresh water for the 3 Kings on the kitchen table, and repositioned the yellow-paper letter with the list of things I wanted (which I don’t remember, sorry). The following morning I did not get what I expected under the tree; nonetheless, my heart stopped breaking into pieces as soon as I checked the buckets outside: THEY WERE ALMOST EMPTY with residues of grass and a smell of horse poop!!! The water for the kings was also gone! My parents never accepted they did it, which sucks because it has been 14 years — they have probably forgot about it.
The existence of the 3 Kings is referenced in the new testament as the Biblical Magi, the wise men, or the kings from the East. According to the legend, they were told by an angel to follow “the star” that would take them where the son of god was born. Melchior was supposedly from Babylon and goes on a horse, Caspar from Persia and goes on a camel, and Balthazar from Arabia and goes on an elephant. Whether they were kings or scholars is not clear, but it was a multicultural team devoted to give a ‘humble’ tribute to their still in diapers king. They go through a series of adventures before the star led them to Bethlehem, a city in Jerusalem. Once they found Jesus, they kneel in front of the child and gave him gold, frankincense, and myrrh… what gave who is not clear either.
This tradition was passed on by the Spaniard conquistadors in Mexico, later in Argentina and Uruguay. Kids from other spanish-speaking cultures follow a special ritual prior to the arrival of the kings, like in Puerto Rico and Costa Rica — where children put grass or greenery in a box under their bed for the Kings’ camels.