By Tanya Connor
The Catholic Free Press
WORCESTER – How do people celebrate Jesus’ birth?
That depends on who you ask.
Variations of some time-honored traditions were shared Jan. 8 at St. Peter Parish in Worcester.
It was the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, which recalls the visit of the wise men, also called the magi or the three kings, to the Child Jesus. People from Spanish-speaking countries often call it Día de Los Reyes or Three Kings Day and celebrate it on Jan. 6, beginning with the vigil the previous evening.
At the 10 a.m. Spanish Mass Sunday the “wise men” brought up the gifts (bread and wine, not gold, frankincense and myrrh). Dressed in shiny robes and headpieces for the occasion were Hector Miron (Melchior), Luis Norberto (Balthasar) and Gerardo Campos (Gaspar).
After Mass (and a meal in St. Peter’s Gym), the three sat in a row, as children (some with parents in tow), lined up in front of them. When called, the children came to them, often one at a time, to receive a gift. Some little ones were hoisted onto their laps as adults snapped cell phone photos. Bigger kids stood beside them for the obligatory picture.
St. Peter’s hosted the event, and parishioner Carlos Ortiz organized it with help from the parish’s Juan XXIII group (part of a movement named for St. John XXIII), said Deacon George Estremera, who serves there.
The Three Kings Day “tradition comes from Spain,” which colonized Latin America, he said. In Central and South America and Spanish-speaking places in the Caribbean, people give children gifts on Three Kings Day, if they can afford them.
Deacon Estremera, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to the United States with his family when he was 8, said his mother used to hold a party Jan. 5. During the evening those present would pray three rosaries. He helped with the celebration while he lived at home, but didn’t carry on the tradition after that. But he’s celebrated the day at the parishes he’s belonged to, with the Masses and meals they held.
St. Peter’s parishioner Salvador de la Cruz spoke in Spanish with others at the lunch Sunday, and translated their memories into English for The Catholic Free Press.
He said that some people give a gift on Christmas, saying that Baby Jesus brought it, and another gift on Epiphany, saying that the three kings brought it.
“Some people – you pray to Baby Jesus for the gift, but Santa brings it over,” he said. “That’s an American influence.… We are losing a lot of the traditions.”
When he was growing up in El Salvador, Baby Jesus brought the gifts, he said. After Mass Dec. 24, “You go home, you have a party and the kids get their gift at midnight. And then we have a lot of firecrackers, like the Fourth of July.”
His son, Jean-Pierre, was born in Worcester, but has grown up with the tradition of receiving a gift from Baby Jesus on Christmas and one from the three kings on Epiphany.
“Santa Claus is not who we have to believe in,” he told Jean-Pierre, when the boy was about 9. “We have to keep many of the traditions; we live in a very secular society.”
Talking with Maria Herrera on Sunday, Mr. de la Cruz learned that in her area of El Salvador, people celebrate the three kings on Jan. 6.
After speaking with Isis Gomera, who was born in the Dominican Republic, Mr. de la Cruz told The Catholic Free Press that people there leave grass for the camels and milk and cookies for the three kings. On Jan. 6 they wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. to open the gifts under the Christmas tree. They wear new clothes at home and church for Christmas and Three Kings Day.
Speaking with Lupe Dominguez, Mr. de la Cruz said that in Mexico, where she is from, children write to the kings to ask for the gifts they want. They leave the note somewhere where it can be seen. Some also leave cookies for the kings and “anything that looks like grass” for the camels.
In Mexico, Santa Claus isn’t usually a part of the celebration; Catholic traditions are strong. Nor does Baby Jesus bring gifts on Christmas. The kings bring them for Epiphany, he explained.
Kathy Martinez, 13, Ms. Dominguez’ niece, said when she was 9 they went to Mexico for the holidays.
“I wasn’t able to go to sleep,” because of the excitement, she said. She said the kings brought her hair clips and ribbons.
“They left us a letter: ‘We’ve been watching you; keep being good,’” added Ms. Dominguez’ daughter, Mariela Miron, 13.