Kings and Candlemas
In Mexico, the holidays continue long after Americans have packed away the trees and tinsel.
Story and photos by Sylvia Brenner
Editor's note: Last issue's "Season of the Sacred" recounted Columbus author Sylvia Brenner's quest to rediscover the true meaning of the holidays — a thousand miles south of the border in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. In this month's part two of her story, she continues the holidays — just as they do in Mexico — to their festive conclusion in the New Year.
January descended on San Miguel de Allende with an elongated, celebratory flourish and mild weather. Residues of Christmas galas lingered. New Year's Eve revelers carried on partying, gathering in Harry's Bar to discuss juicy tidbits — escalating violence in Mexico, the sagging US economy and dearth of real-estate sales. For children, the most exciting festivity was still ahead — the arrival of Los Tres Reyes (The Three Kings) and gifts.
Los Tres Reyes, the Three Kings, arrive on horseback at the Nativity scene in the Jardin, bringing gifts to the infant Jesus.
After my morning trek to Starbucks, I would sit in the Jardin on a clammy iron bench, soaking up thin sunshine and chatting with strangers. After smiling and exchanging "Feliz Ao Nuevo" or "Prospero Ao Nuevo" (Happy or Prosperous New Year) greetings, my rudimentary Spanish often embarrassingly faltered — then totally fizzled.
Multi-colored confetti mingled with dried flower petals outside La Parroquia, where back-to-back Saturday weddings were scheduled. Some nuptials appeared strained. A wobbly groom, inebriated from an earlier stag party, arrived late and kept the priest waiting. A tiny flower girl wet her panties. A bride's mother angrily refused to be photographed next to her former husband. Extravagant all-white floral arrangements and bridesmaids' dark frocks meshed sacred ceremonies into funeral-like venues. Inside the church's nave, a glass coffin morbidly displayed a scantily draped, full-sized statue of a bloodied, crucified Jesus lying in repose.
In the Jardin, vacationing children chased flocks of pigeons or harassed farm animals still confined within the Nativity scene, awaiting the arrival of The Three Kings.
"We need to go shopping for Rosca de Reyes," Camilla told me. "Most kids are still waiting to receive their gifts. Although the tradition is being replaced by Santa Claus in some areas, many of them still believe it is the Three Kings who bring their presents on the night of January fifth."
The Three Kings Day, celebrated on Jan. 6 and also known as Epiphany, is the culmination of the 12 days of Christmas. It commemorates the journey of three wise men from the East — Gasper, Melchior and Balthasar — who followed a brilliant star to find the infant Jesus. Tradition records they may have been magicians or astrologers who came bearing precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
We walked down cobblestone streets to the nearest panaderia, where roscas, sweet bread dough formed into wreath-shapes, were being sold. Studded with strips of candied fruit before being baked, the circular breads ranged from individual to an extra-large family size, almost like pizzas. Hidden inside the bread was a tiny figurine of baby Jesus. As we patiently waited in line in the crowded bakery, box after box was rapidly whisked out through the bakery's blue doors. Then we counted our pesos and decided to split a medium.
"You know, when you slice and serve it on January sixth, whoever gets the piece with the baby Jesus has to throw a sweet tamale party on February second, which is Dia de la Candelaria or Candlemas," said Camilla. "If we split the bread now, it will just dry out. Let's just wait a couple of days. Maybe we could have a little party over at my casita."
Camilla had recently rented a casita up across the street from Nicholas' house, part of a 250-year-old former hacienda made famous by author Tony Cohan. In his 2001 book, On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel, he had extolled the charms of San Miguel, inspiring others to move there, purchase and rehabilitate dilapidated, historic dwellings. Cohen's hacienda was on the verge of collapse when he and his artist wife Masako Takahashi bought the property in the 1980s. Cohen had described San Miguel as a place where "history, religion and ceremony soften the effects of change." The couple later divorced. Takahashi was awarded the house in a property settlement.
The front door to Camilla's casita was typical of most local residences. Crafted from iron-like mesquite wood and anchored by antique iron hinges, it gave no hint of what lay behind it, serving only as an entry through the hacienda's thick brick walls. "Walls served as demarcations between public and private spaces," Cohen wrote, "keeping things out, such as people, animals, dust, floodwaters, and keeping things in, such as people animals, secrets and possessions."
For weeks I had walked up and down the hill, constantly passing by the hacienda's formidable walls with never a hint of the lushness and beauty inside. There had been no way to tell.
Decked out in gilded turbans and swaggering cloaks, wearing false beards and wigs, the Three Kings, one with a blackened face, paraded up the streets on horseback. They were followed by an entourage of young angels in draped white bed sheets, wearing tinsel crowns. When the trio reached the Jardin, they dismounted and reverently knelt in front of the Nativity tableau, offering prayers and gifts to the infant in the manger. Then they remounted and galloped off, tossing candy to spectators as they left.
We included Stefano in our Three Kings Day party since by now the three of us, from three different countries, were acquainted. Camilla had whipped Mexican hot chocolate into a frothy beverage, liberally lacing drinks with Kahlua.
Stefano came with a copy of Cohen's book for Camilla. Even though she was casually acquainted with Masako, she had never read it. "I really didn't like the book," Stefano told her. "I thought it overly romantic. Not an insight into the real San Miguel. Sort of a fuzzy, feel-good story spread out over several years. As an Italian who's living here, I was very disappointed."
Stefano's mood grew darker as we trudged across the plant-filled patio, past still-blossoming magenta bougainvilleas, and peeked through the hacienda's windows. "What a glorious waste of time and money," he muttered. "What is there to show for all of this? A divorce. A soulless house filled with beautiful objects. No one enjoys it anymore. Life should be about enjoyment, don't you agree?" He sighed. "I've never been married."