One of the holidays of the month of January (for all I know, being as uninformed about things as I am, it could have been the only one) is Dia de los Tres Reyes—Day of the Three Kings. It is the last of the “winter holidays,” and is held on the 6th of January each year—a celebration of the three kings/wise men encountering the baby Jesus. Gifts are sometimes exchanged, but the most prominent aspects of the holiday I noticed were the parties and the bread. “Bread?!?” you say? Let me explain.
The night of the 5th is when some people begin celebrating the holiday, with a grand dinner fiesta with family and friends. The Rosca de Reyes (Wreath of Kings) is a large, rectangular-shaped loaf of sweetbread; it is almost shaped like a frame. In other places it is more circular or oval. There are candied strips of lime, strawberry, and orange (three colors), along with a dusting of sugar on the crust. Here’s the surprise: inside the loaf there are three (sometimes up to five or more) little plastic infants, and if you encounter—hopefully not with your teeth, as did my dad—a little infant in the slice of Rosca you are served, you are supposed to do one of the following. 1) Buy or make tamales to be had a fiesta you are supposed to host on the 2nd of February, or 2) NOT have to buy the tamales that are to be had a fiesta on the 2nd of February. Numbers 1 and 2 are in conflict because I never seemed to get the same story out of any two people…
Delicious Rosca de Reyes
But, the day was bittersweet (not to be punny), because my last grandparent, mother of my dad, passed away on Dia de los Reyes. This immediately precipitated the coming of much family and friends into Zapotlanejo to pay their respects and attend the ceremonies. This wave of family came just after the last family visitors from the winter holidays were leaving—and so made 4 straight weeks of family time. Two days after my grandmother passed, all of my family who needed to travel here were already here, away from their jobs and other obligations, to attend and participate in the ceremonies.
Not just family came to Zapotlanejo to visit, but also a good amount of friends of the family. News of this kind spreads fast here. But what struck me was how united all of the family and friends were—the amount of solidarity that exists in a community like this, to be there for one another in a time of need or loss. The great amount of support was sincere and valued by myself and my family.
There were some cultural aspects worth noting as well. Two days after she passed and was flown in to Zapotlanejo, an all-night vigil of prayer velorio was held, in accordance with Catholic and Mexican cultural tradition (an open-casket was also an inseparable part of all the proceedings). The following day was the funeral, and as the coffin was slowly driven through the narrow, winding streets of this town, the crowd of attendees walked behind, singing, praying, talking, or keeping silent. We made our way all the way to the cemetery like this; I noticed that this procession created quite a bit of traffic, but as soon as the drivers caught sight of what was happening, they were patient, understanding, and respectful. At the cemetery, one of my uncles and his mariachi band played my grandmother’s favorite songs, as we talked, sang, wept, and reflected.
After the burial, a novenario followed for 9 straight days: every day from 8-8:30p.m., people (mostly family) would gather and pray the rosary. It is often viewed as assisting the deceased in their transition to the next life, and is often a very cathartic experience for the mourners. After, the attendees drank coffee and cinnamon tea while talking and reminiscing. As this nightly novenario was held partly in the house and partly just outside of it, I observed that passersby often took off their hats or crossed themselves as they passed out of respect, even if they didn’t know who the novenario was for.
As the intensity of seeing your forebear lowered into the earth sinks in, one is forced to confront the reality of death: that it will one day come to us all. And while that is a sad and sobering thought, it immediately gives us appreciation for the here and now: to be living and alive, and grateful of this beautiful glimpse of existence we are given. All this caused me acknowledge the fact that with the passing of my grandmother, so passes a mother a many. She was 100 years old, had given birth to 14 children, had been shot in the leg (in her house) during the Cristero War (click here for war history), and had survived long enough to earn the title of great-great-grandmother. I was her youngest grandson. So, now the torch is passed to my aunts and uncles—they now become the end of the line, the oldest living torchbearers; they become the grandmothers and great-grandfathers and so forth.
So we look to our own lives, acknowledging the inevitable end on this planet that will come to us all, while at the same time realizing that the precious opportunity of this moment is to be enjoyed to its fullest. We raise our torches and continue our lineages and our lives—whether we acknowledge it or not—and lay the stones for those coming behind us to walk on.