- Three Kings’ Day falls on January 6, commemorating the day that it’s believed the three wise men visited Jesus after his birth.
- In some cultures, Three Kings’ Day is known as Epiphany.
- The holiday is widely celebrated in Spanish-speaking nations and is connected to Christmas.
Three Kings’ Day, also known as Epiphany, is a celebration of the figures—referred to as the three wise men, the magi, or the three kings—who traveled to pay homage to the recently born Jesus Christ to hail him as a king in Bethlehem. It occurs on January 6.
The arrival of the magi is written about in the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew, which says that Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar traveled for 12 days to reach Jesus. They each brought a unique gift. The event is commemorated in the song “We Three Kings,” and the trio is often portrayed in Three Kings’ Day parades everywhere from New York City to Madrid and Uruguay.
For an overview about Three Kings’ Day, including its history and how it’s celebrated, we spoke to Miriam Ortiz, a catechist at the Church of the Ascension in Manhattan.
The holiday celebrates the three kings who visited with Jesus at his birth.
The three kings, who are also known as the three wise men or the magi, are said to have followed a guiding star to Bethlehem to honor the birth of Jesus Christ and celebrate him as a king, per Encyclopedia Brittanica.
They first met with Herod, then-governor of Judea, who told the trio to go to Bethlehem, according to El Museo del Barrio, which is known for its large Three Kings’ Day parade in New York. The museum also posited that, based on where they were traveling from, “it can be surmised that they came from either Asia or Africa,” though there is variance in the way the story itself is told.
The museum wrote that Melchor is typically depicted as being Arab or descending from Northern Africa, while Caspar is sometimes portrayed as Asian. They note that Balthazar is often shown as Ethiopian.
“Three Kings’ Day celebrates the welcoming of Jesus,” says Ortiz. “These three wise men came together after the birth of Jesus was foretold. They had faith— and that’s what’s really important, the example of faith to travel miles, because they actually believed. I think that’s what the three kings signify: faith, hope, and charity.”
The arrival of the three kings has been depicted in many works of art, including “Adoration of the Magi” paintings by artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Hieronymus Bosch, as well as many nativity scenes.
According to Ortiz, some of the artistic depictions of the arrival of the three kings have led to misconceptions, including that Jesus was a newborn when they greeted him.
“Common lore is that they got there and Jesus was still a baby, but that’s not really true. That’s just for art’s sake. We know that it took months for the three kings to travel. Jesus could have been any age between one year and two years old,” she explains, also noting that the Bible says they visited the house, not the stable. “I think for artistic significance they show a baby, but really Jesus was much older.
January 6 is an important date for Christians in countries around the world.
As noted by The New York Times, Three Kings’ Day is also known as Epiphany and celebrated in many cultures. In the Czech Republic, for example, there are parades, as well as a tradition where people plunge themselves into the freezing cold Vltava River to look for a wooden crucifix.
Per that same piece, the tradition of diving into bodies of water is also common in Russia, Greece, and Bulgaria, as well as among the Greek Orthodox in Australia, where it is known as Blessing of the Waters.
According to the museum, the Epiphany is celebrated by “the Anglican, Eastern, and Roman Catholic churches.” Per the BBC, many Orthodox sects of Christianity celebrate the Epiphany on January 19. The January 6 date is celebrated by Catholics, and within Vatican City through a Sunday mass and a statement from the pope.
“We need to arise, to get up from our sedentary lives and prepare for a journey,” Pope Francis said during his 2019 address. “We also need to shine, to be clothed in God who is light, day by day, until we are fully clothed in Jesus.”
In Spanish speaking countries and areas, the day features large celebrations.
From Spain to Puerto Rico to American cities like Miami and New York with significant Catholic, Spanish speaking populations, Three Kings’ Day is often honored. Madrid has a grand, vibrant parade on the evening of January 5, for example.
In Puerto Rico, Ortiz says that the holiday is celebrated for an additional eight days afterwards, known as Octavitas.
To commemorate the day, Three King’s Bread is typically eaten.
According to Velas Magazine, Three Kings’ Bread—also known as rosca de reyes— is an oval-shaped dish made of sweet dough and typically flavored with additions like orange extract, orange blossom water, crystallized fruits, jam, and sugar paste.
Ortiz explains that the cake is also popular in Mexico and France (under the name galette des rois, which, like rosca de reyes, translates to “cake of the kings”). She says that in some communities, a tiny baby doll or some other small item is hidden within the cake.
Traditionally, children leave treats for camels.
Ortiz, whose parents come from Puerto Rico, shares some of the stories they told her about how they celebrated the holiday. Some of the ways of acknowledging the day are pretty close to Christmas festivities, particularly with traditions related to Santa Claus.
“As children, my parents would place hay and water under the bed for the camels, so that when the three kings arrived, they could feed them. If they had a piece of bread or something that they could leave for the three kings also, they would,” she explains. “In the morning, the water and hay would be gone, and a toy would be left in their place.”
In a 2017 interview with the Washington Post, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, described Three Kings’ Day in his household growing up. He talked about gathering grass and hay for the camels and leaving it in a shoe box near his bed.
“Just like you would leave milk and cookies for Santa, we’re leaving grass and hay for the camels to eat because they’ve obviously come a long way if they’re coming to upper Manhattan to bring you toys,” he joked.
According to NBC News, in countries like Uruguay, Mexico, and Spain, young kids leave their shoes out to be filled with gifts on the night before the holiday.
Three Kings’ Day is connected to Christmas.
Three Kings’ Day and Christmas share not only a season, but other similarities, too. The key difference is that Christmas itself has both a religious and broad secular connotation in culture, whereas Three Kings’ Day is celebrated largely by Christians. In Uruguay, which is a secular country, Three Kings’ Day is also known as Day of the Child (Día del Niño).
El Museo del Barrio noted many of the customs associated with Three Kings’ Day, which include door-to-door holiday caroling (arrandas) and the consumption of sweets and group meals, are similar to Christmas. The songs are often also sung around Christmas, and use traditional instruments like the güiro, cuatro, and maracas.
Nativity scenes, which are frequently made and displayed by Christians around Christmas, often depict the very moment that Three Kings’ Day celebrates, and they feature Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar.
As covered by NBC News, the celebration of Three Kings’ Day in some Latinx households in America may be decreasing. The piece cited a Pew Research Center study that noted the percentage of Latinx people who said their parents brought them cultural celebrations has been fading.
According to the New York Times, in Spain and some Latin American countries, Christmas gifts are actually given on Epiphany, and in some places, young children pen letters to the magi in a way that many kids write notes to Santa.
In his 2019 address on Epiphany, Pope Francis took the opportunity to connect the two holidays further, instructing people to be charitable not just towards one another, but to God as well.
“Let us ask ourselves this question: at Christmas did we bring gifts to Jesus for his party, or did we only exchange gifts among ourselves?” he said. “If we went to the Lord empty-handed, today we can remedy that.”
There are three gifts associated with Three Kings’ Day.
Per the Biblical Archaeology Society, the meaning of the three gifts brought on Three Kings’ Day has been debated by Christian scholars over the years. The items themselves were gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which, according to the same source, were typical items presented “to honor a king or deity in the ancient world.”
While the worth of gold is obvious, it is believed that there is actually more value to the gifts than previously realized. According to Simon Cotton’s account in Chemistry World, the frankincense and myrrh may have especially had significant value beyond just bringing a pleasant odor. He revealed that research has been done on the painkilling properties of myrrh molecules, and the boswellic acid that is a part of frankincense resin is known to ameliorate issues with both inflammation and arthritis.
“Frankincense was traditionally burned in temples by the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks, to symbolize prayers rising to the gods. Historically, myrrh was more often used in perfumes and medicines, for healing wounds (it is put into mouthwashes and toothpaste to this day) and to preserve bodies,” Cotton wrote.
According to Ortiz, each item also had a symbolic meaning related to the birth of Jesus.
“For gold to be presented to Jesus was to signify that he was king of kings. Frankincense was used for worship or prayer. They were there to worship the child Jesus,” says Ortiz. “And myrrh was used for embalming and in death. Its significance is showing that Jesus Christ will give his life for us.”
El Museo del Barrio noted that the gold is typically credited to Melchor, the myrrh to Balthazzar, and the frankincense from Caspar.
Of course, Three Kings’ Day festivities will be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. But for those who believe, just like the magi and their camels travelled all the way to Bethlehem on faith, families will find a way to somehow celebrate this important day.