Following yonder star

Originally published in Florida, the Sunday magazine of the Orlando Sentinel

Some of Edwin Albino's fondest childhood memories would have at least a touch of familiarity to anyone who set out milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve and lay in bed with ears straining for the sound of sleigh bells.

In the late afternoon on January 5, Albino would pick some fresh grass and place it in a small box along with a letter asking for a gift, or maybe praying that some family member or friend with health problems would get better. The grass, note and a bowl of water were tucked under his bed for the visitors to come. Albino would go to sleep early in his home in the western Puerto Rican town of Hormigueros, just like thousands of other children all over the island -- indeed, all over Latin America.

typical wood carving of the three kingsThey were waiting for the three kings, commonly referred to in English-language Bible stories as the three wise men, who followed a star to find and pay tribute to the newborn Jesus. The grass and water were left for their tired and hungry camels, or, as the traditions were molded in Puerto Rico, their horses. In the morning, the children awoke to find the box replaced by small gifts.

"We did it as a devotion," says Albino, whose voice when talking about the traditions takes on a reverential tone appropriate for an observance so deeply based based in Christianity.

"We always waited for the kings as the greatest thing in the world."

The traditions of Three Kings Day, celebrated each year on January 6, are treasured by those who are trying to hold on to the religious underpinnings of the Christmas season in the face of an ever-more-commercial and secular focus. In few places is Three Kings Day as important as in Puerto Rico, where it is referred to in one encyclopedia of Puerto Rican culture as the national fiesta. So universal was the celebration of the holiday that Puerto Ricans invented a verb, reyar, or, loosely translated, "to king," which means to celebrate the holiday. The Royal Academy in Madrid, the worldwide guardian and arbiter of the Spanish language, accepted reyar as a word several years ago, ensuring it a place in dictionaries everywhere.

Compared with the imported Christmas tradition of Santa Claus, the roots of Three Kings Day are easy to trace in Puerto Rico. They make sense on a tropical island populated by the descendants of Spanish explorers, other European immigrants, indigenous peoples and African slaves who have long since melded into their own culture historically ruled by the Catholic church. A jolly fat guy in a heavy red suit, reindeer, sleds -- these are clearly foreign imports. The kings, on the other hand, have been for centuries something a poor kid from the mountains or the humble city barrios could understand.

The three kings followed the star to bring gifts to baby Jesus. Ever since, the kings have arrived on schedule each January to bring gifts to all the world's children. Three Kings Day is a holiday focused on children. The gifts and special attention are for them, just as the kings traveled for days to pay honor to a child in Bethlehem. In earlier times in Puerto Rico, Christmas was a religious observance. Twelve days later, the kings arrived, and that's when, as every child knew, gifts were left by the bed.

Albino, now 48 and a historian with the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, studies full-time the same traditions he enjoyed as a child. He collects the oral histories of the Three Kings Day traditions, transcribes the songs that are sung, records each and every appearance of the historical figures. And, most of all, he studies the sculptures.

As the holiday passed from the Middle East to Spain and on to the New World, including Puerto Rico, each culture put its own stamp on the kings, sometimes in revealing ways.

In Puerto Rico, the image of the kings has been molded and guarded over the centuries largely by the santeros, the artists whose ubiquitous wooden sculptures of Catholic saints, and especially the kings, can be found in nearly every Puerto Rican home.

Puerto Rico's settlers didn't just carry on the Spanish celebrations of the holiday. They "Puerto Ricanized it," as Albino puts it.

As the early artisans carved and painted, they replaced the camels with horses. Nobody in Puerto Rico in those days had ever seen a camel, but lots of people had horses. In some cases, the royal finery the kings wore gave way to the more humble dress of the Puerto Rican settlers. Instead of gifts of gold, incense and myrrh, the kings sometimes carried toys and gifts a Puerto Rican child of the times would yearn for. Other times they carried a cuatro, the traditional Puerto Rican guitar, or some other local musical instrument, as if ready to join in the celebration of their impending arrival.

typical wood carving of the three kingsBut perhaps the most interesting change to Gaspar, Melchor and Baltasar as they were reinvented in Puerto Rico had to do with race. In Puerto Rican art, whether statues or paintings, Melchor is black, and almost always pictured in the center. In some cases, one of the kings is shown with the Amer-Indian features of the Tainos who were the original inhabitants of the island when the Spaniards arrived in 1493. But in all cases, any Puerto Rican child, no matter what the mixture of European, Native American and African blood in his or her veins, could look at the kings and find a face to believe in. The kings represented not just Biblical past, but also the racially mixed reality of Puerto Rico present, along with a subtle statement of hope for the future in a place where the sons and daughter of former Spanish conquerors and former slaves had to make a life together on a small rectangle of land in the sea.

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Each year, on January 6, the southern town of Juana Díaz in Puerto Rico dedicates itself to remembering and celebrating the traditions of the kings. Thousands gather in the town's traditional central plaza, where an arch, topped by a statue of the kings, looms over splashing fountains and bright yellow hibiscus bushes. At one time, every town in Puerto Rico also had an annual festival to honor its patron saint. The events were held in the central plaza, where nearly always the Catholic church reposed at one end of the square. But over the years, the religious focus of the patron saint festivals faded, and many of them became little more than tawdry carnivals featuring portable amusement rides, dance music and too much drinking. In the last two years, many towns have canceled their festivals because the once-religious events had become magnets for fights and other petty crime.

Juana Díaz has purposefully steered its annual Three Kings Day festival down a different path. There are no carnival rides, just tents where artisans sell their traditional crafts, the most popular of which are, naturally, the wooden carvings of the kings. The festival's religious aspect remains intact in the form of the traditional open-air Catholic Mass in the plaza. Thousands parade through the streets in the morning, most of them dressed in Biblical costumes, to herald the arrival of the kings themselves.

Dressed in gilded finery, the three men chosen to embody the tradition pose for an endless series of family photographs and kiss more babies than a politician campaigning at a kindergarten moms' convention. Parents bring their small children, while they still fit into that narrow age window between being afraid to let go of a mother's hand to sit on a stranger's lap and before they reach the age of no longer believing. The parents search their children's eyes for the same look of wonder that Santa Claus might evoke elsewhere, or even here in Puerto Rico, now that U.S. Christmas traditions crowd into every cranny of island society. Parents from all over the island bring their children to Juana Díaz to keep alive the belief in the kings, the same belief they felt themselves as small children tucking boxes of grass under the edge of the bed.

It is also a tradition many Puerto Ricans -- and immigrants from Latin American countries -- have carried with them to the 50 states. Or at least they have tried to keep some of that wonder alive in the eyes of their children, who are increasingly enticed by the commercial jingle of Santa Claus before the Thanksgiving turkey is baked.

It's not easy for either those who still live in Puerto Rico or those who have moved to the states. In Puerto Rico, the U.S. traditions of gift-giving at Christmas have put down strong roots, strengthened by the commercial force of advertising.

In the states, by the time January 6 arrives, the neighbors have put away the lights, tossed out the dried-up tree and settled back into post-holiday normalcy. For Puerto Ricans who still follow their traditions, the festivities are just about to peak when everyone else is looking at the first page of a new calendar and deciding it's time to get back to work and enough with the parties and goofing off, already.

Growing up in the west coast town of Aguadilla in Puerto Rico, Alfredo Gonzázlez looked forward to Three Kings Day as the most exciting time of the year. Today, he tries to give the holiday the same importance for his children, growing up in Orlando. After seven years in New England and three years in Central Florida, Gonzázlez has grown accustomed to being in the small minority still celebrating after New Years Day.

"When we lived up north it was unheard of," the 36-year-old dermatologist said of the holiday. "At least here there is enough of a Hispanic population that January 6 means something."

At home in Aguadilla, Gonzázlez took on the responsibility at age 17 of organizing the velorio, the traditional party on the eve of the kings' arrival. Every detail followed tradition. Families from the neighborhood gathered at Gonzázlez's family's home for an evening of celebration. There were no tapes or CDs. The music came from the traditional Puerto Rican cuatro and time was kept by experienced hands thumping the drums and the scratch of a guiro -- an instrument made from a hollow gourd. From the roast pork to the burning candles, the velorio followed the patterns handed down over generations.

More generations, in fact, than many of the revelers themselves might have realized. The first observances of Three Kings Day date back to the early 16th century when Spanish evangelists began arriving at the two fledgling outposts on opposite corners of the island. But the tradition of the velorio came later as a result of pacts between the faithful and the saints.

It was called la promesa, the promise. Facing hardship, the supplicant would make a deal, a promise to the saints. See me through this hard time and I will honor you. Prayers will be said in your name and songs will be sung. Whether a dirt-poor farmer facing hunger in the isolated central valleys of the island or an anxious Spaniard about to set sail across a forbidding ocean toward a new, uncertain life, untold thousands of promises were uttered in pleas for survival or safe passage.

The eve of Three Kings Day was a common time to repay the saints, and from las promesas grew the traditional velorios. Maybe the person petitioning the saints had promised just one day of homage. Or maybe a lifetime. Either way, the prayers and songs sent heavenward on each year, especially in western towns such as Aguadilla and Hormigueros and a half dozen others, come from the joy of surviving.

The velorio has since become more than just payment for a promise kept. It is now part of the folk traditions of Three Kings Day, for those who still keep the old ways alive.

Ten-year Orlando resident Miguel Lanzo spends much of his free time keeping all sorts of Puerto Rican traditions going. His music group, Bomba y plena Lanzo, is named for two types of Puerto Rican folk music. He and his fellow musicians, who hail from all points on the island, have played for audiences in schools and festivals.

When Three Kings Day comes around, he keeps the traditions alive for his young daughter. She picks the grass and leaves it in a shoebox by her bed, "just like we did it in Puerto Rico," Lanzo says.

Gonzázlez, who tries hard to make the kings as relevant and important to his 11-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter growing up in Orlando as they were to him as a boy in Aguadilla, splits the holiday gift-giving, as most Puerto Rican parents do these days, whether they live in the states or on the island. Gifts come from Santa Claus on Christmas Day and from the three kings on January 6.

"I tell them Christmas is not over until January 6," Gonzázlez says. "I tell them the story about the three kings, and I try to make it a part of the American tradition."

He explains to them that the kings, in the Catholic church, are saints. People pray to them to seek miracles or favors. For children, the favors are gifts. Later in life, they may ask for something else. Such decisions on matters of faith will have to be made by his children as they grow up, Gonzázlez understands. He just wants to make sure that when they make those decisions, they will have met and learned about the saints their ancestors prayed to for generations.

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In Puerto Rico, people are especially proud of their culture. Many feel protective of the unique traditions that were inevitably formed on an isolated island.

At the same time, the majority is quick to adopt, or at least adapt, U.S. traditions. Thanksgiving, a holiday with no basis in Puerto Rican history or tradition, is widely celebrated, complete with turkey and cranberry sauce, on the island. In the same way, Santa Claus has become ubiquitous, clamoring in the minds of children for their attention and devotion.

Some, like Albino of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, barely stop short of saying that the Three Kings Day tradition is superior to that Santa Claus import. The kings, he notes, go back centuries, to the very birth of Christ. There is a simplicity in the way the myth follows faith, how the arrival of gifts on the morning of January 6 is a reflection of part of the Bible's most important story. The basis for believing in the kings is strong on an island where, at one time, attendance at Mass was required by law. Tradition, myth and faith intertwine and strengthen each other, in the form of a simple story any 3-year-old can understand.

Abelardo Díaz Alfaro, a patriarch of Puerto Rican letters, wrote an essay published this year in Cultura, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture's magazine, about why he loves the three kings more than San Claus. Díaz Alfaro wrote:

"I love them because they are in my tradition, in my blood, and, above all, because I was a poor child."

The kings of Díaz Alfaro's childhood missed no house, even if they left only a few sweets or simple gifts. But more importantly, they brought magic to humble homes and, in a way Santa Claus never could, they represented what was best about Puerto Rican culture in poorer times, especially in the country where people worked hard to scratch a living from the steep mountains. The kings brought not only gifts, but also examples of how things should be.

"The children of yesterday, they did not have racial prejudices; one of the kings was described to us as dark in complexion, as if burned by the sun. A Moorish king. They were kings without prejudice. All Santa Clauses are white, plump, with bright beards of cotton-white or blond."

It was clear to Díaz Alfaro which tradition was the right one for Puerto Rico. If a red-suited Santa came to the door of a humble Puerto Rican home? "The dog would bark at him," Díaz Alfaro predicts.

Many Puerto Ricans speak about the Three Kings Day traditions with reverence. Like the faithful anywhere, of any belief, they like to spread the word. One of Dr. González's prized possessions is a serigraph of the three kings that hangs in his office in Winter Park. It holds a prominent place where patients coming or going or paying their bills cannot miss it.

"Every time someone asks me what that picture is about, I tell them about the tradition," says González.

Inevitably, many do ask. He seems to be hoping they will.