Three Kings Day (Artful Devotion)

Christmas isn’t over yet, so I hope you’re still celebrating! As has been the case for centuries, many Christians spread their holiday festivities over twelve days, from December 25 to January 5, followed by the culminating feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Epiphany commemorates the visit of the magi to the Christ child and thus God’s physical manifestation to the Gentiles. In Spanish-speaking countries and communities, it’s commonly known as Three Kings Day. This year it just so happens to fall on a Sunday.

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Three Kings by Juan Cartagena
Juan Cartagena, Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings), Puerto Rico, 19th century. Painted wooden bulto. Vidal Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” . . .

After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

—Matthew 2:1–2, 9–11

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SONG: “Décimas De Nacimiento” (Décimas of the Nativity) by Pedro Flores | Recorded by Los Jíbaros, 1935, with vocals by Vilar and Pedro Dávila (aka Davilita) | Reissued on Where Will You Be Christmas Day?, 2004

 

Los Jíbaros, also known as the Cuarteto Flores, were a popular and influential Puerto Rican group founded in New York in 1930 by Pedro Flores. Their name refers to the peasant farmers of Puerto Rico, who developed a style of mountain music, jibaro music, that’s rooted in music brought to the island by early settlers from Andalusia and Extremadura in southern and western Spain during the seventeenth century.

The jibaro song “Décimas De Nacimiento” is an aguinaldo (Christmas carol; literally “gift”) that comprises four décimas (ten-line stanzas) performed in dialogue. In this traditional poetic form, each line contains eight syllables and follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBAAB—but here the poet has adapted the scheme to ABBAACCDDC. The two singers perform to an accompaniment of three guitars and a guiro (scratch gourd).

En un pesebre nacio
A eso de la medianoche
Un niño que sin reproche
Clamaron hijo de Dios
Una estrella iluminó
El sitio donde María
Tenía en brazos al Mesías
Que acaba de nacer
Al que empezaban a ver
Al amanecer del día

Los tres magos soberanos
De los reinos del Oriente
Vinieron muy diligentes
A ofrendar su Dios cristiano
Y todo el mundo pagano
Recuerda las profecías
Pues sabian que nacería
Pronto el hijo de Israel
Y que lo iban a ver
Al amanecer del día

Todas las aves cantaban
Olian todas las flores
Bonita luz y colores
Las astros del cielo daban
Los buenos sabios oraban
Los réprobos se escondian
En las pajas ya había
Nacido el niño sonriente
Se postró un mundo creyente
Al amanecer del día

Y a través de las edades
Recordando al soberano
El universo cristiano
Celebra las navidades
Dice así, felicidades
El humano se extasía
Y aún pedimos al Mesías
Hijo de María y José
Que algo de su gracia nos dé
Al amenecer del día

He was born in a manger
About midnight
An innocent child
Proclaimed the Son of God
A star shone upon
The place where Mary
Held our Savior in her arms
Who had just been born
They beheld him
At daybreak

The three wise men
From the Orient
Promptly came
To offer gifts to the Son of God
And all the pagan world
Remembered the prophecies
That foretold the birth
Of the Son of Israel
And they came to see Him
At daybreak

All the birds were singing
All the flowers were perfumed
Stars in the sky were shedding
Beautiful light and colors
The wise men were praying
The scoundrels were hiding
Already, in the straw
The smiling child had been born
Everyone fell to their knees
At daybreak

Throughout the ages
In memory of our Sovereign
The Christian universe
Celebrates His birth
With good wishes
Humanity is ecstatic
And we still pray for the Messiah
Son of Mary and Joseph
To shed His grace upon us
At daybreak

This is one of many songs that might be heard at a parranda, a Puerto Rican caroling party that moves from house to house, lasting from around 10 p.m. to dawn on any given night of Christmas. The repertoire is a mix of sacred and secular songs, but unlike in the continental US, they are all festive and upbeat. As the carolers progress to each new stop, the head of that house invites them in for food and beverages. Parrandas are one of the leading social activities of the Christmas season on the island.

“Décimas De Nacimiento” was originally released by Columbia Records on vinyl in the 1930s. In 2004 it was reissued by Dust-to-Digital on a compilation Christmas album produced by folk music preservationist Lance Ledbetter and musicologist Dick Spottswood; there it appears alongside other rare recordings of American gospel, blues, and hillbilly music from the twenties and thirties.

Another vintage recording of the song, by Trio Armonico, can be found on The Music of Puerto Rico: Recordings 1929–1947, released in 2009 by Black Round Records. [Listen on Spotify]

(Related posts: “Flamenco-style devotional singing in southern Spain”; “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”)

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Celebrated annually on January 6, El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos, or simply Three Kings Day, is one of the most important holidays on the Puerto Rican calendar—so much so that Puerto Ricans invented a verb, reyar, that means “to celebrate Three Kings Day.” On the eve of the holiday, children put a shoebox filled with straw under their beds for the animal transports, be they camels or horses, of the Three Kings, who visit their homes with presents between midnight and dawn. Children awake not only to gifts but also to a day of parades and feasting with family and friends. Old San Juan throws an annual festival at the Luis Muñoz Marín Park with live music, food and drink, and free gifts, but the highlight of the day occurs when the Three Kings come walking into town. They start from their unofficial hometown of Juana Díaz in the south and travel around the island, stopping to celebrate in various localities—but no celebration is larger than that in Old San Juan.

(Listen to composer, playwright, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda describe how he grew up celebrating Three Kings Day in New York City in this video from 2017.)

Three Kings bulto
Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings), Puerto Rico, late 19th century. Painted wooden bulto by a member of the Rivera family. Vidal Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Not surprisingly, the Three Kings are among the most popular santos (handmade images of saints and other religious figures) in Puerto Rico. Since camels were unknown to earlier local santeros (makers of religious images), the Three Kings are typically shown riding Paso Fino horses. The gifts they bear may be the three traditional ones—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—or typical Puerto Rican gifts, such as musical instruments. In Puerto Rico, Melchior is shown with dark skin, and he is often given special prominence, especially by santeros of African descent.

The two bultos (small religious carvings) pictured above were gifted to the Smithsonian, along with 3,200-plus other objects, by Puerto Rican folk art collector Teodoro Vidal. Learn more about the Vidal Collection at https://amhistory.si.edu/vidal/. (You may remember me speaking about another bulto donated by Vidal, Señor de la Humildad y la Paciencia, in my Stations of the Cross audio guide.)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Epiphany, cycle C, click here.

3 thoughts on “Three Kings Day (Artful Devotion)

  1. Thank you. I spent my ten years in Puerto Rico. The Christmas season there is vibrant and colorful, peaked with tradition, all centered around Christ. In my mind’s eye I see Old San Juan as I read this article. Beautiful.

    Like

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