For Some, Three Kings Day Is Bigger Than Christmas

Three Kings Day is when the three wise men are believed to have visited the baby Jesus. Many cultures, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, are celebrating on Friday. Festivities are also going strong in East Harlem, Miami, Los Angeles, even Disneyland. Host Michel Martin speaks with Gonzalo Casals, who organizes a parade in East Harlem.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we turn to matters of faith and spirituality. In a few minutes, we will speak with a woman who tried for a year to improve her spiritual commitment. Spoiler alert: She says she failed at every step, but still learned some valuable lessons that she promises to share with us in a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about a holiday today. Now, you might have thought the holidays were over, but you would be wrong because today is Three Kings Day. That's the celebration of the day that the wise men visited newborn baby Jesus. It is called El Dia de los Reyes in Spanish. And in many Latin American countries, Three Kings Day is even a bigger holiday than Christmas. There are presents and singing and dancing and music.

Now, there will be many celebrations across the U.S. There will be festivals in Los Angeles, Miami, even Disneyland for the first time this year. But we thought we'd check in with a parade in East Harlem, New York. That community celebrates Three Kings Day with a 14-foot-tall puppet, live camels, honorary kings and like any good celebration, lots of food.

We've called on one of the organizers of today's parade, Gonzalo Casals. He's with El Museo del Barrio. That's the museum and cultural center that has put on the parade in East Harlem for the past 35 years.

Welcome. And what's the proper greeting for you for Three Kings Day?

GONZALO CASALS: Felice Dia de los Reyes.

MARTIN: Felice Dia de los Reyes.

CASALS: Yeah.

MARTIN: How'd I do? Pretty good?

CASALS: Pretty good. Yeah.

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Well, there you go. Do we have any idea how this celebration began?

CASALS: I'm not sure exactly how the tradition began. We do know how, you know, it came to happen in Latin America, of course. You know, the Roman Catholic Church, with its Spanish empire, came to Latin America and left, you know, so many holidays and so many traditions for us and Three Kings is one of them.

MARTIN: Well, how is it celebrated in Argentina, which is where you're from?

CASALS: Well, in Argentina, it's not as big as in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean, as you've said, it's bigger than Christmas and it's kind of like, you know, Christmas is just another thing happening before the Three Kings. In Argentina, it's a little bit smaller, but what you usually do is that you go to sleep and, before going to sleep, you leave a little bit of water, a little bit of grass for the camels. You leave a letter for the kings saying what is it that you want and, you know, how well you behaved, you know, during that year and you leave your shoes, usually outside your bedroom door or outside of your house and the next morning, you wake up and you get a present.

MARTIN: Oh.

CASALS: And, sometimes, you know, if the kings are really nice and industrious, you know, they leave off a letter saying, you know, what they expect from you next year.

MARTIN: Oh, really? Like, what was in your letter? Did you get a memorable letter saying...

CASALS: No, no. I remember...

MARTIN: ...all A's or anything like that?

CASALS: What I do remember is that, you know, one year, we didn't have grass for the camels and my parents, you know, had the idea to leave dog food for the camels and it worked out. You know, we got our presents.

MARTIN: Dog food for the camels.

CASALS: Yes.

MARTIN: Yeah. The boxes of like - I love it. The shoeboxes of grass with the dirt, you know, under the beds for the camels and - so you're in charge of putting on the Three Kings Day parade in East Harlem. Well, for those of us who are, you know, filled with rage and envy that we can't make it to New York today, tell us what we're missing.

CASALS: Well, we've been celebrating Three Kings for 35 years and the idea of the parade - so how they call them in Spain, which is the Cabalgatas - it's something that, you know, happens all over Latino America and the parade is a really interesting parade to us because it's almost like a procession. Anybody that wants to join the parade and parade with us, they can do it.

So, usually, when you see the spectators of other parades in New York, are the ones, you know, that the protagonist of our parade. So we have almost, like, 3,000 school kids joining us today from different schools all over the city. We have community-based organizations that are in the neighborhood and they also work with Latino community. We have families that, you know, let their kids, you know, not go to the school, you know, that day and just celebrate with us and we have a lot of...

MARTIN: Excuse me. Don't tell them. Don't tell them. So they're all sick. They're not at the parade. They're all sick. Okay. Go ahead.

CASALS: And then we have a lot of talent. You know, a lot of the musicians that have performed at el Museo during the year. A lot of school marching bands. Everybody just wants to come over and celebrate, you know, in this one place in New York.

MARTIN: Well, you know, we have to talk about the food. Is there something special that we should be sure to try to find or eat to celebrate El Dia de los Reyes?

CASALS: Of course. There's what we call roscon de reyes, or the kings' cake, which is like a sweet bread that is decorated with fruit and it has the shape of a crown and it's a really sweet bread. You can get it in any - I mean, at least in New York, you can get it almost in any Mexican bakery in your neighborhood, which there are plenty in New York. And the interesting thing about it is that, you know, inside the bread, there's at least two or three baby Jesus figures, like little dolls hidden in the bread and whoever gets that portion and finds it as they are eating and they find the baby Jesus, they're going to have a very lucky year.

MARTIN: Oh, they're going to have a - yeah. Very much like the king cake. You know, of course, we have a king cake to celebrate, you know, Mardi Gras, which is dusted in the sugar of, you know, the purple, the gold and the green. Must be related traditions. Has to be.

CASALS: Yeah, of course.

MARTIN: Have to be. Yeah, have to be. So, Mr. Casals, you know, you can tell me. What's in your letter to the three kings this year?

CASALS: Oh, that's...

MARTIN: What do you want the magi to bring you?

CASALS: That's a good question.

MARTIN: Because I will use my connections to make sure that the message is, you know, received.

CASALS: Great. Well, just what I would like for this year - I would like a lot of - you know, my grandmother always said, you know, health and money and love, so that's what I would like.

MARTIN: I'll see what I can do. Gonzalo Casals is organizer of East Harlem's Three Kings Day parade. He is also director of public programs at El Museo Del Barrio there, which is also in Harlem and he was kind enough to take a break from his very busy day to join us in NPR's bureau in New York.

Thank you so much for joining us and felice El Dia de los Reyes.

CASALS: Felice El Dia de los Reyes, Michel.

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