January 6th, the Day of the Kings, Twelfth Night and the Twelve Day of Christmas all culminate in a celebration in Mexico known as Dia de Los Reyes. The event in the Catholic Church in Mexico celebrates the traditional arrival of the three kings bearing gifts for the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. The standardization to the Gregorian calendar has left question as to which day (January 5th or January 6th) is actually the 12th night.
Although today in Baja Santa Claus and commercial ‘Christmas’ have to a great extent replaced Dia de Los Reyes as the day of gift giving it remains the day of giving in much of mainland Mexico.
In the Catholic Calendar the day marks the traditional end of the Christmas holiday and the beginning of the Feast of Epiphany on the first Sunday following and as said, celebrates the gift of the Magi to the baby Jesus. But the roots of the 12 days of Christmas goes back to pagan celebrations hundreds, perhaps thousands of years older.
In Mexico the bonding of the 12 days to the solstice was part of the bonding of the Conquistador's religion with native feasts including those of the dominate Aztec calendar. With the local religions and gods founded in astronomic observations native priests were well aware of the solstice. By celebrating the Christian feasts in the place of older pagan rituals the Catholic faith became easier for the native population to accept the religion thrust on them. The act also allowed the Church to save face as they attempted to eradicate pagan rituals by merging over the top of them.
Even most biblical scholars agree that December 25 is an unlikely date for the birth of Jesus. It more likely being in July or mid April, with known dates of the Roman census. But in an effort to encompass pagan religions, ‘Christmas’ was moved to coincide with the pagan Winter Solstice celebrations. Even early astronomers were aware that the earth reached a zenith in its tilt away from the sun in late December. Pagan celebrations of the event, the New Year and the pending return of spring, resulted in significant feasts in most ancient cultures.
There are a variety of explanations for the number 12, the foremost being that within the accuracy of ancient astronomy the sun appears to remain at that point of zenith for 12 days, and then begins to move northward again. Other reasoning places the 12 days more ancient, back to some of the earliest religions emanating from India. The twelve days honoring each of the positions of the Zodiac and later the 12 major Greco-Roman gods. (Months) Even most biblical scholars agree that it likely has little to do with the actually arrival of the Kings 12 days after the birth of the Christ child.
Most churches will have special masses and bazaars in celebration of the holiday, these celebrations are more extravagant in some places in the mainland.
In Mexico the day is celebrated usually with a single gift and the eating of Rosca de Reyes (literal translation is spiral “bread” of Kings) a round sweetbread laden with dried fruit. The bread rolls are commonly available in grocery stores and are served at homes and businesses throughout the day of the feast.
Beware and eat carefully when offered your slice of the Rosca de Reyes, as there is at least one hidden surprise packed within the bread, a plastic baby representing the baby Jesus. If your slice of the Rosca contains the plastic baby you are responsible for providing tamales to all those present on Fiesta de la Candelaria on February 2. It is considered not only bad form, but provides bad luck for the year should you be “codo” (cheap) and fail in your obligation to provide tamales.
As Dia de Guadalupe marks the beginning of the holidays, Dia de Los Reyes marks the end of the holiday vacation period in Mexico. Schools are closed from the week of Christmas through Dia de Los Reyes in most parts of Mexico and many Mexicans take the opportunity to vacation and life as a whole is a little slower during the two week holiday period. This ending of the solstice celebration also goes back to pagan times. The Romans celebrated a winter solstice feast that lasted through the first week of January. It was considered bad luck to maintain your festive decorations up past what we now call January 6th. (since the acceptance of the Gregorian calendar)
Today in Baja and throughout Mexico the day has lost some of its importance. But as Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) and Christmas are more celebrated as family holidays Dia de Los Reyes has developed the flavor of being the celebration of the holidays for friends and business associates.