My friend Rudy, who is Mexican-American, shared the following description with me of how their family celebrates Three Kings’ Day:
“Three Kings’ Day is a really big one- that one we celebrated specifically. So that was like, January 6th, it’s the day that the three wise men finally reach Bethlehem with the baby Jesus. And um we- you’re actually not allowed to throw out your Christmas tree, in like, Mexican culture, like until Three Kings’ Day. So you have to keep your tree until then because that’s like, the official like, end of the season. And like, you put your shoes out and you leave food for the camels and then they fill your shoes with like sweets or a toy as a thank you for um, feeding the camels and giving them a rest. And like as a congratulations for being a good child. And so that was um, always important, and then you have a rosca de reyes which is um, a bread shaped like a crown so it’s like, circular bread. And um, there is sugar on it and dried fruits and there’s also tiny baby Jesuses inside it…There’s like multiple babies in roscas sometimes cause people like, like to play with fire. And um, well it’s like, when you get the slice and you get a baby Jesus inside your slice then you are obligated to throw a party on February second. And that’s the uh, day that Jesus is presented to the temple. Um, so you have to throw the party that day. But at that point it’s less about Jesus and more about more partying.”
When I heard Rudy’s description of the rosca de reyes, I recognized it as a variant of the “king cake” eaten in New Orleans on Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras king cakes are also circular and have a tiny plastic baby representing the baby Jesus baked into them. The version of the king cake tradition I learned from my aunt, who lives in New Orleans, says that the person who gets the baby in their slice has to buy the cake the following year. The king cake/rosca is a prime example of folkloric foodways that are present, but variable, across cultures.