I could send you to the Wikipedia entry for Epiphany celebrations around the world, but why? Here’s a beautiful article from NYT with gorgeous photography showing how it’s celebrated around the world.
See you in February 2023, Pillow Talkers!
It’s the festive season. Well. It’s a festive season. So many festive times in this land in this day and age, and it’s bloody marvellous. But this is my festive season. Stretching from the 24th of December, with Noche Buena which is my Christmas, on Christmas Eve, all the way through to the 6th of January, Dia de Reyes, The Kings Day. As in – we three kings from Orient are, the magi, the wise men. It’s a date officially known as the epiphany: the event when these men found the Christ child and gave him their gifts.
We’re pretty assimilated here in Australia, far from where we came, but from early on I decided that the one tradition I would keep alive was Reyes. On the night of the 5th January, children leave out grass and water for the weary camels, travelling their endless course to that miraculous birth. And they leave out their shoes. The kings, grateful for the rest and replenishment, leave a present inside the shoes. Or if you’re lucky, the present might be big enough to fit on your shoes!
I re-instated the tradition with my niece and nephew. Then with my own children. Then step children. One of these stepchildren, who was introduced to this tradition after finding out the truth about Santa, told one of her schoolfriends about it. She came home and said, “Violeta, I told Brittney about the Reyes. She said they don’t exist!” I said, “Gee… you can think what you like, but you know, if you stop believing in the Reyes they stop coming and leaving presents. It’s up to you.” She gave me this steady, serious look like she was making a deal with Don Corleone and said, “I understand.” And now, the reyes are stopping by to visit and thank my granddaughters.
It all centres around kids and yet what the kids don’t know is that every Reyes, as we pluck grass and fill a huge bowl with water, I’m doing it only partly for them. Mostly, it’s for me.
Grownups are fond of saying that Christmas is for the children. Well, Reyes is for me. It was my favourite holiday then and it’s my favourite holiday now and I’m not delighting in indulging children, I’m delighting in indulging myself. The memories I’m helping create are an expansion of my own. I’d tell you it’s for my inner child except I don’t have one – mine is out and proud.
I remember Reyes in our home in Buenos Aires. We were city kids and I remember grass was rare. We had to pounce on whatever was growing under the trees on the sidewalk before any of the other neighbourhood kids got to it. I remember we had steep outdoor stairs that led up to our rooftop – the terraza – and we used to leave bowls and shoes, plus a treat and a drink for the reyes, on the steps. I remember imagining the Reyes landing on the terraza, the pads of the camel’s feet softly treading above our heads as we slept.
But when I remember Reyes with intent, my memories are of Reyes at my cousins’ place. I have a million cousins, but when I say, “my cousins”, I mean two cousins in particular: Fatima and Daniela. They lived in a poorer part of town with their two brothers, and their parents, and our paternal grandparents, in a state of perpetual cacophony and discord, and I absolutely loved it there. It was fun. We ran wild. And despite the dysfunctionality of that home it also had particular functionality that affects me to this day. Because the same home that celebrated the epiphany also celebrated Ramadan. My abuela prayed to the Virgin Mary and a host of other saints who are too numerous to name or remember, and my abuelo prayed five times a day. The two faiths coexisted… even if Fatima was fond of climbing onto abuelo’s back while he prayed and got a horsy ride as he went up and down.
I have a quote here. I don’t know whether it’s one I found or one I made up but it goes like this: cousins are the first friends of your life. They are the friends of your childhood and no one else can understand the craziness of your family like they can.
Fatima, born 22 days after me, and Daniela, born a year and 21 days after me, were my first and best friends. And because the three of us always ganged up on the grownups to plead our case, there was seldom a visit that didn’t turn into a sleepover. If you don’t count my sister (whom I once famously asked to make me soup at 6 in the morning) these were my first bedroom conversations. Furtive, whispered, giggly conversations.
On Reyes morning one or both of them would crawl into my bed and wake me. The question was always the same: “Vinieron los Reyes?” “Did the Reyes come?” We whispered furiously so as not to wake the boys on the other side of the room. We debated whether to go outside. Was it too early? Who dared look? It was always me, but it wasn’t because I was brave, it was because I knew they hoped it would be me. And I’d do it for them. For us.
All I had to do was jump down from the top bunk, walk to the door, move the curtain that looked out onto the patio, and peek. And it was terrifying. What if I moved the curtain and saw that they’d passed us by? No presents? What if I saw Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar there, depositing the presents? I knew I’d be struck down in terror and awe. What if that older girl up the road was right and there were no Reyes – it was just your parents? My world would come crashing down if I saw them leaving presents. There was so much riding on that moment. The previous night we’d been so sure, so confident, so happy, and now the uncertainty rendered us immobile.
Well – almost. I crept forward. I peeked. And then the cry. “They came!” We’d shout and run outside and wake the household with our hollering and horseplay. Faith restored. Fun restored. Innocence restored. Our epiphany.
It’s the festive season and no matter what you believe you can’t deny that the all-encompassing message is about the shiny and new. What shiny new thing are you gonna get? What shiny new thing are you gonna give? Most of all, what shiny new thing are you gonna buy?
As I think about what I try to recapture with Reyes, as I try not to freak out when the umpteenth checkout person asks me if I’m all ready for Christmas yet, I wonder: what if at this time of year we turned our backs on the shiny and new and thought about what we could restore instead?
You know – the same old thing, but szuszed up. Given some love, as people like to say about fixing up yellowing lawns and unpolished silverware.
Restoration carries a risk. It’s scary. I learned that as a tiny girl creeping towards a door. But while the shiny and new tends to displace and devalue what went before, restoration returns things to their proper place, and their proper standing and value.
What would a spirit of restoration do for our planet? For our relationships? For ourselves?
Imagine if a holiday meal with all the fixins literally had all the fixings. That everyone taking part was any combination of loved up, attended to, forgiven, fortified and beautified. Not necessarily an easy thing, or a convenient thing. But maybe, like some men setting out in search of what lay under a star half a world away, wise.