By Gemma Cruz Araneta
Coming from an undilutedly Catholic family, I have never lost my taste for celebrating Three Kings day, a religious feast that used to be regarded with gravitas.
Anticipating the arrival of the Three Wise Men was an irrefragable element of the Christmas season. “You have to believe in them, or you’ll never see them, “ my grandma would whisper mysteriously as my brother and I laid out our best pairs of shoes on the windowsill of our home on Donada street. We had spent all afternoon cleaning and shining them, a task we hugely enjoyed when anticipating the arrival of the Three Magi.
Because they crossed deserts in such distant lands, the Three Kings would always come at midnight when we were already fast asleep. However, I would imagine how they looked in gleaming raiment and bejeweled turbans, bearing precious gifts, quietly examining our shoes, and looking for a place to leave their presents. How can I forget their very first gift! It was a delightful two-story dollhouse with its own miniature furniture, so enormous that the Three Kings had to put my shoes on top of it. How baffling that a cousin who lived miles away in Santa Mesa received the very same thing, but in a different color.
I am eternally grateful to my mother and her parents for giving the Three Kings preeminence over Santa Claus, that obstreperous creation of Coca-Cola. In my clutch of misremembered memories, they have always been a still point in this turning world.Lamentably, this year the Three Kings must have passed by as always, but, for the first time, were totally ignored. How do we wrest meaning from that mindless slight?
In Mexico, Melchor, Gaspar, y Baltasar still reigns supreme. It was the birthday of my son-in-law, Gaspar, and Fatimah sent me a picture of “mi rey” wearing an elaborate turban. They were all huddled in the dining room with an enormous “rosca de reyes” and cups of thick hot chocolate. The rosca is sweet bread shaped like a wreath, sprinkled with sugar and decorated with slivers of glazed fruits. To me, it is the closest thing to our ensaymada, so I would buy several roscas and had generous slices for breakfast and merienda, just like in the Philippines.
A certain ritual is attached to the rosca de reyes. There is a figurine of the Christ Child baked in the dough, so finding the “niño” is the exhilarating part of the feast of the Epiphany. In absolute silence, the rosca is sliced ever so carefully and the moment the figurine is found, there is loud cheering and bantering because whoever gets the Christ Child will have to give a party on 2 February, the feast of the Purification. Corn tamales with different fillings and atole, a rice drink, are served on that particular day.
I will always remember out first Epiphany in Mexico. Fatimah was 8 years old and Leon only 4, but I bundled them up in their bulky Chiconcuac jackets and took them to Parque Alameda in the afternoon. The Alameda is a pretty wooded park on Avenida Juarez, in the centro histórico of Mexico, in full view of the emblematic Bellas Artes theater. On 6 January, Parque Alameda becomes a family destination where parents take their brood to pose for souvenir pictures with the Reyes Magos. In fact, there are several Reyes Magos groups installed in strategic corners of the park. They charge a modest fee. There are also exaggeratedly false eyelashes of colored foil forsale along with all types of moustaches. I bought Fatimah bright green lashes with silver dust and a velvety Pancho Villa moustache for little Leon. They selected the most flamboyant Three Kings group and began striking various poses as I excitedly recorded those naggingly memorable times. (I must scan those photos before they fade completely.) Then we strolled around the park enthralled by the diverse spectrum of merchandise peddled by ambulant vendors – dolls with embroidered dresses, wooden toys, papier mache animals, horns and other noisemakers, steaming corn tamales, sweet coconut candies, all manner of freshly made tacos and tortas, natives drinks like aguas de Jamaica, limón or tamarindo, and Mexican soft drinks called Chaparrita and Boing. There were stands of rosca de reyes, but I had already bought ours from a neighborhood bakery.
Before going back home to Tlalnepantla, Fatimah and Leon asked me to buy a gigantic balloon, which, by some miracle, I managed to squeeze into the car. Once seated in our warm kitchen, I ceremoniously brought out the rosca and we each had a slice with cups of hot chocolate. Fatimah and Leon cheered when I found the Christ Child nestled in my slice. In Mexico, the Epiphany is not just a religious feast, nor the last day of gift-giving; it is intimately connected with the elaboration and ritual consumption of Mexican delicacies, close to the gut. Perhaps this layering of old and new guarantees the presence of the Three Kings; they will never be missing in action in the ex- Virreinato de la Nueva España.