Wednesday, January 3, 2007

A Latino Christmas

Many Latinos in the United States combine both U.S. norms and Latin American conventions in the Christmas season. Many children in Latin America view Christmas as centered on the myths of the gift-giving baby Jesus and the generous Three Kings, whereas a jolly old man dressed in red offers rewards to the good and merciful in the United States. How can these disparate festivities be combined? This fusion is achieved in part with the desire of their Latin American parents or grandparents to keep la cultura alive after moving to the United States.

In Latin America, many children plant corn seeds and later place the ripe corn under their bed on Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) for the baby Jesus, who, like Santa Claus, gives gifts to well-behaved children. The holiday season continues through Christmas to the annual arrival of the Magi before dawn on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany or Three Kings Day. According to the bible, three wise men followed the Star of Bethlehem from Persia (present-day Iran) to Jerusalem to bear gifts to the baby Jesus on this day.

Throughout Latin America, Three Kings Day is the climax of the holiday season—children receive the most gifts and the journey of the Three Kings is often imitated. According to the Latin American myth, these kings transform every year to three stars. Their residence in the sky allows them to receive wish lists from any child despite location. Children place a box full of grass and some water under their bed for the kings’ camels on the night before Three Kings Day. The next day, after the Magis’ nocturnal stops at each child’s bedside, the family enjoys the king’s generosity and gathers for the traditional Epiphany dinner, where everyone is served a slice of la Rosca de los Tres Reyes (the Three Kings Cake). In one of these pieces of cake, one of the guests will find a baby Jesus clay doll.

Many Latin Americans immigrate to the United States and intend to continue their traditions, including these holiday conventions. Nevertheless, there is a concern in many Hispanic communities that the jolly old man dressed in red is replacing both baby Jesus and the Three Kings. Surprisingly, this concern is found in both the United States and Latin America. Many Latin American nations follow the winter traditions of the United States. For example, a Puerto Rican firm recently transported Canadian snow to the island so that the children can enjoy “the whole American winter”—holiday carols, Santa Claus, and snow. Also, many families import pine trees from the United States and Canada to their homes in Latin America for Christmas.

Santa Claus seems to be another mode of assimilation as his legend crowds out the Three Kings and the baby Jesus from the holiday festivities. Nevertheless, many Latinos in the United States continue to blend U.S. culture and their Latin American heritage as they celebrate these holiday customs. For example, many Latino-populated communities, such as Spanish Harlem, hold parades on Three Kings Day with camels, donkeys, and different biblical characters.

My own holiday celebration combines the Three Kings myth my parents grew up with and the Santa Claus legend that the United States has taught me. When I was a child, my immediate family and I awaited the arrival of both Santa Claus and the Kings. On December 24th, I left cookies and milk, Santa’s favorite dessert, near our small plastic Christmas tree. Then on the night of January 5th, I lured the three kings’ camels with snippets of grass made of green construction paper—paper because New York City is barren of grass during the cold months—under my bed.

Three Kings Day is one of the biggest gift-giving occasions in Latin America, and many Latin Americans who strive to maintain their culture continue to give importance to the Magi and baby Jesus after moving to the United States. Their U.S.-born children are taught the myth of Santa Claus while their Latin American family extends the holiday season through the first week of January. For that reason, as Bill and their other American friends are discarding the Christmas tree, many Latino children are putting out the small Three Kings statue on the kitchen table.

Resources: Las Culturas, Puerto Rico Herald,

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