Who arrives on the 12th day of Christmas? Three Wise Men, of course

Dr. Margaret Salazar-Porzio, curator of Latino History and Culture in the Home and Community Life division, and intern Jonathan Borda share highlights from the museum's collection of Three Kings figures for Three Kings Day. 

Many people in United States may have grown up singing about the 12 days of Christmas, a traditional song of 12 cumulative versus that include a greater and greater abundance of gifts each time—recall the resounding chorus, "five golden rings"!  While singing this song as children, however, we may have given little thought to the significance of the 12 days, which start Christmas Day (or the day after Christmas in some traditions) and continue through the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th.

Set of three kinds where the horses bow
In this Latin American depiction of the Three Kings, even the horses bow to the infant Jesus.

The Epiphany Holiday, known in Spanish speaking countries as Dia De Los Tres Reyes (Day of The Three Kings), falls annually on January 6th and marks the adoration of baby Jesus by the three Kings, also referred to as Wise Men or Magi.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the men found the divine child in Bethlehem by following the North Star across the desert. According to later writings, the Kings (Melchior from Europe, Caspar from Arabia, and Balthazar from Africa) arrived twelve days after Jesus' birth. They travelled by horse, camel, and elephant (respectively) to present the newborn baby Jesus with three symbolic gifts: gold, because Jesus was royalty as "King of the Jews;" frankincense, which represented the baby's holy nature as the Son of God; and myrrh to signify Jesus' mortality.  Each gift foreshadowed Jesus' future crucifixion as a means to cleanse humanity of its sins. This biblical Nativity story means that January 6th is not only a sacred day in many households, but it is also celebrated in many ways throughout the world.

Three statuettes of kings complete with robes and gowns stand on the same base.
This set of Three Kings is from the town of Morovis, Puerto Rico, and it was probably crafted in the late 1800s. The set is currently on display in the exhibition, Many Voices, One Nation.

In many Latin American countries, the Epiphany Holiday is as popular as Christmas. For example, in Argentina people dress as the three kings and ride camels in public festivals and parades. During the festivities, children leave out cookies for Los Reyes Magos (The Three Kings) instead of Santa, and some put out a shoe box filled with grass or hay and buckets of water for the kings' camels. If the children have been good all year, they receive toys left for them in the shoe boxes. 

In the United States, the holiday is celebrated throughout the country as well. In Colorado, the Great Fruit Cake Toss involves people dressed as kings and fools all attempting to throw their fruitcake the farthest. In Louisiana, the Epiphany Holiday helps to mark the beginning of the Carnival season building up to Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday and Lent. Traditional "King Cakes" are made for the holiday and, unlike the aforementioned fruitcakes, these are eaten and enjoyed.

Detail shot showing one of the three kings in a set. The figure wears an opulent robe with gold flourishes.
This king from a set of particularly opulent Three Kings showcases beautiful details.
The Smithsonian has a significant number of Tres Reyes figures. Each set of Magi is unique and the differences between them illustrate the various ways people throughout the country and the world celebrate this day.  

Dr. Margaret Salazar-Porzio is a curator of Latino History and Culture in the Home and Community Life division. She has also blogged about how the Day of the Dead is not HalloweenJonathan Borda is a museum intern.