Three Kings celebration signifies togetherness

Betsy López Fritscher

For Manuel Ortega, almost nothing compares with the celebration of Three Kings Day.

“Christmas is celebrated, but it doesn’t compare to the feeling of Three Kings Day,” he explained. “In Latin America, we celebrate this tradition brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores.”

Also called the Feast of the Epiphany, the holiday falls on Jan. 6, although many families begin celebrating today, on the eve of the celebration of the day that the three wise men found Jesus in Bethlehem.

Ortega and his wife Yolanda, owners of Yolanda’s Bakery and Panaderia in Belvidere, have been preparing for the holiday all week by baking more than 200 traditional Rosca de Reyes (crown of kings) cakes for local shops and to sell in their store.

The crown-shaped cakes are decorated with candied fruits and colorful preserves — symbolic of royal jewels for the baby Jesus.

“The baby in the bread represents Jesus,” Manuel Ortega said. “Whoever finds him in the bread has to throw a party on Feb. 2, Candlemas,” the day Jesus was presented at temple.

Having come from a ranch in a small town south of Guanajuato, Mexico, the Ortegas explained that they have seen this Latin tradition evolve past religion to become something people of all faiths can celebrate. Yolanda said that although language can be a barrier for some, there’s always the breaking of the bread to bring people together.

“What’s important is that we celebrate these occasions together, not only within our own race and culture, but with people of all races,” she said. “In sharing food together, we can help others learn our customs.”

Going beyond the sweet aroma of the holiday bread, many Latinos feel that the traditions associated with Three Kings Day can be easily related to those of a traditional American Christmas and the bread like that used by the French for Mardi Gras. Rather than perceive the holiday to be foreign, it can be embraced, Yolanda said.

Three Kings Day is a time for togetherness and the sharing of gifts, just like Christmas. Children leave their shoes out on the Vispera de los Reyes Magos (the eve of the kings), in some countries filling them with grass and hay for the king’s camels, to receive gifts much like the classical figure of Santa Claus, who gets milk and cookies with each house he passes. As with the Jolly Old St. Nick tradition, children must go to sleep early and be on their best behavior in hopes the kings will fill their shoes with goodies and toys.

While Latino families have immigrated to the United States with their own holidays and traditions, they have learned that with their move comes the collaboration of traditions within their culture. For many Latinos, as is true in the case of the Ortegas whose children were born and raised in the United States, teaching the American traditions of Santa Claus at Christmas and the significance of celebrating Three Kings Day in January is second nature for parents.

“We would buy them (our kids) presents for Christmas and something else for Three Kings Day so they wouldn’t forget our traditions,” Manuel Ortega recalled.

Betsy López Fritscher, journalist for Espejo News, a Spanish language weekly of the Rockford Register Star, can be reached at 815-961-5842 or

Cake facts

These king cakes bake in 20 minutes at 400 degrees. From being topped with fresh fruits and decorations to being filled with a variety of preserves and cheese, anything goes as long as it’s shaped like a crown. This style of cake is also used by the French in New Orleans on Mardi Gras.