Hispanic cultures’ Christmas events extend into February


For The Dialog


RISING SUN, Md. – The ripped wrapping paper from Christmas gifts awaits pick up in overstuffed garbage containers. The Christmas music that had dominated many radio stations in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day has ended. For many Americans, the Christmas season is over.

But for Catholics the Christmas season has just begun. And within many Hispanic cultures that season is a journey that began with “Posadas,” re-enactments in the final days of Advent of Joseph and Mary seeking shelter in Bethlehem, and ends with the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus on Feb. 2.

The next major stop on that journey comes on the Feast of the Epiphany, more commonly known as “Tres Reyes” (Feast of the Three Kings) in Hispanic cultures.

Men portray the three kings at a previous celebration of Tres Reyes at St. Christopher Parish, in Chester, Md. Courtesy of Brother Chris Posch

All the stops are a way of making participants feel they are with Jesus on his journey through life, said Herman Dominguez, a member of Good Shepherd Parish in Perryville, Md., which has the mission St. Agnes Church in Rising Sun. “We just try to follow the how the life of Jesus was, from the time he was born until the time he died on the cross.”

Tres Reyes takes on more importance in Dominguez’s Mexican heritage than it does in his United States culture. That is the traditional day when gifts are exchanged in Mexico. When Dominguez grew up to the south of Mexico City he didn’t know about Santa Claus. The emphasis on giving followed the example of Tres Reyes, who brought gifts to the Baby Jesus.

“In Mexico that is when we give small gifts to the children,” he said.

It’s also a time when families come together in celebration, much like Christmas in the U.S.

Brother Chris Posch, the Franciscan priest who heads the diocese’s Hispanic ministry, said Hispanic cultures manage to link the various feast days into a seemingly continuous celebration. Here are some of the major steps:

Posadas: These nine-day novenas, which begin Dec. 16 and end Dec. 24, symbolize the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. Participants are often costumed as Mary and Joseph, and children as angels, shepherds and sheep. In the United States, the number of days of a Posada takes may be reduced to two or three.

Christmas: Families bring baby Jesus (a doll or a statue) to church to be blessed with holy water during Mass. “Many families elect the youngest child to put the baby Jesus down in the sanctuary,” Brother Chris said. The Baby Jesus is taken home. Dominguez said it is traditional in the area where he grew up to attend midnight Mass followed by get-togethers of family and friends.

Feast of Mary, Jan. 1: Many Mexicans bring 12 candles to church to be blessed. That allows one candle for home prayer each month of the year.

Tres Reyes, Jan. 6: The Feast of the Epiphany is a major holy day in Hispanic cultures. Many celebrate with rosca bread, a sweet bread in the shape of a wreath with fruit and a Jesus doll in it. This is usually done in family or friends gatherings following Mass. The person who received the piece containing the Jesus doll, in Mexican tradition, makes tamales for a gathering of the same family and friends on the Feast of the Presentation.

Feast of the Presentation, Feb. 2: This is the official end of the Christmas season for Hispanic cultures. Families bring the same Jesus dolls they took to Christmas Mass back to church to be blessed again.  Afterward, the same groups that gathered after Mass on Tres Reyes, the Feast of the Epiphany, gather again to celebrate the Presentation. Those who received the Jesus statue from the rosca bread at Epiphany are supply the tamales for this gathering.

Some may think Feb. 2 as a late time to officially end the Christmas season. But up until liturgical changes following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the church’s liturgical calendar considered everything from Christmas through Feb. 2 as its Christmas season. Back then, Christmas was a 40-day season, the same length as Lent.

Confusion about when the church’s Christmas season ends continues. Many believe it ends with the Feast of the Epiphany, with its official date of Jan. 6. But the church’s season ends the Sunday after Epiphany with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. That will be Jan. 12 next month.

While Dominguez has adopted some United States Christmas traditions (his two daughters received gifts on Christmas), he still clings to the traditions he shared before moving to the U.S. 14 years ago. His daughters will also receive some gifts on Tres Reyes.

“All the times of Jesus’ life, our community tries to remember by doing what happened before,” he said. By doing that they feel Jesus as a part of their lives, and their lives as a part of Jesus’ life.