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Toys, shoes, and cake: Celebrating Three Kings' Day on Jan. 6th

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Ever wondered what the story is behind those beautiful cake rings you see appearing throughout Mexican neighborhoods this time of year? The following is excerpted from Celebraciones Mexicicnas: History, Traditions and Recipes, co-authored by this columnist with recipes by Adriana Almazan Lahl.

January 6, Day of the Three Wise Men, or Día de Los Reyes Magos, is almost like a second Christmas in Mexico, coinciding with Epiphany and celebrating the coming of the Three Wise Men and the presentation of the baby Jesus at the River Jordan for baptism, according to the Catholic religion. It also marks the end of the period of a marathon of holidays that come one after another, beginning on December 12 with the Día de La Virgen de Guadalupe, informally known in Mexico today as the Guadalupe-Reyes Marathon.

This is the day Mexican children wait for all year long, as they anticipate the arrival of Los Reyes Magos (rather than Santa Claus on Christmas Eve). It is the Three Wise Men who will bring them toys, just as they came to ancient Bethlehem bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. (In Mexico, for Christmas, it is more traditional for children to receive clothing). In many areas of Mexico, children leave out their empty shoes on the night of January 5, hoping that they will find them filled with treasures in the morning.
The holiday is also celebrated with the charming tradition of the Rosca de Reyes. This is “the Kings’ Cake,” a flour-based cake rich with butter and egg yolks, originally in the shape of a ring to echo a crown, but which has grown into an oval as it has “stretched” to accommodate larger crowds. As wheat flour was not introduced to Mexico until the invasion of the Spanish in the 16th century, the rosca likely became part of Mexico’s holiday traditions sometime after that (originally, it was the Moors, invading Spain in the eighth century, who brought with them cakes rich in almonds, dried fruits, spices, and refined sugar—all key ingredients in the rosca).

Hidden inside the rosca is a figure of baby Jesus, either plastic or porcelain, to symbolize how Mary and Joseph had to hide Him from King Herod, who had been apprised of the signs that a new and rightful king of Jerusalem would born and ordered all male infants in Bethlehem be put to death. The deadly search is symbolized by the knife cutting the ring cake. As with many Mexican holidays, on January 6 neighbors and family share the light evening meal, each having a chance to find the figure of baby Jesus in their slice of the rosca. The tradition
of the Rosca de Reyes also extends the Christmas celebrations for another few weeks; the lucky guest who finds him is designated to host a tamalda, a party at which tamales and hot chocolate are served, on February 2, Día del Candelaria.

Rosca de Reyes are widely available in San Francisco's Mission District, with many panaderias or Mexican bakeries taking orders in advance and selling out early. Our recommendation is La Mexicana on 24th St. just off the corner of York St. For more on the best Mexican bakeries in the Mission....

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