Gabriela Gonzalez-Lamberson remembers celebrating Three Kings Days when she was growing up in Los Angeles. Three Kings Day brought a little something extra each Christmas season.
The day, celebrated in Mexico and throughout Latin America and South America, marks the point in the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus when the three wise men, or kings, arrived with gifts to honor the newborn. It also marks the end of the Christmas season.
“It is a very important tradition within the Mexican culture,” said Gonzalez-Lamberson, who is of Cuban heritage but grew up in a community with many Mexican families, and works as executive director of the Brookhaven-based Instituto de Mexico, Inc.
In some homes that decorate for the holidays with nativity scenes – the tabletop displays that usually include figures of Mary, Joseph, shepherds and angels – the figures of the kings were not added until Three Kings Day, Gonzalez-Lamberson said.
At times between Christmas and Three Kings Day, the figures of the kings might be placed in rooms other than the one containing the nativity scene so children could imagine the Kings are on their journey, she said.
“The celebration itself,” Gonzalez-Lamberson said, “is really about completing that nativity.”
In some families, children received presents on Three Kings Day. Traditional celebrations of the holiday also call for consumption of a sweet bread that includes a plastic doll hidden inside. The person served the piece containing the doll must throw a party for friends and relatives on Feb. 2, Gonzalez-Lamberson said.
For the past 11 years, the Instituto, the nonprofit Gonzalez-Lamberson directs, has put together a public celebration of Three Kings Day. Organized to disseminate the art and culture of Mexico, the institute works to “keep traditions alive within the Mexican population and also create a friendship bridge between the Mexican and non-Mexican populations,” she said.
Three Kings Day is one of four community celebrations the organization sponsors. The others, she said, are Children’s Day in April, Mexican Independence Day in September, and the Day of the Dead in November.
For the past couple of years, the Three Kings Day celebration has attracted about 1,000 participants, she said. About 70 percent of those who attend are Hispanic, she said.
This year, the celebration is scheduled for the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 5, and will be held at the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead. Admission is free. Children 12 and younger who attend will be given small presents, food and tickets to a raffle for larger presents, such as bicycles – “the shiny, sassy fun things when you go to Walmart,” she said.
The celebration includes performances by Mariachi musicians and folk dancers, and an appearance by the three kings, Gonzalez-Lamberson said. “We actually have the three kings there,” she said. “Each family gets to take a photo with the three kings.”
The goal is to work to keep Mexican traditions alive among families now living in metro Atlanta.
“Part of what we do is to keep traditions alive,” she said. “We live in a society where there is assimilation. As generations continue, traditions become morphed. But our mission is to continue those traditions and to continue to talk about the importance of those traditions – what is behind it and why.
“I hope we are doing our part in creating a better understanding of the traditions.”