My parents woke me and my brothers up in the middle of the night when I was six years old in my hometown of Querétaro (1992). Three men dressed in robes, crowns, and white gloves extended their arms that held gifts. Two of them had long, fake beards, the other one had blackface makeup on.
“Do you know who they are?” my mom asked me. “Los Reyes Magos: Melchor, Gaspar, y Baltazar,” I whispered in disbelief and nervously grabbed my gift. My brothers, both older than me, told me the following morning that they saw the three men fly off our balcony on their respective animals (horse, camel, and elephant).
In some parts of Mexico, Santa Claus (or sometimes Baby Jesus) does not bring you presents on Christmas. This task is appointed to the Three Wise Men (Los Reyes Magos, which translates to “the Three Magic Kings”). Just like when they bring gifts to Christ in the Bible.
Epiphany is a Christian holiday celebrated on January 6th. In Spain, Latin American countries, and Hispanic communities in the U.S. it's better known as Día de Reyes Magos. Traditionally, children let go of helium balloons with a letter to the kings with a list of their wishes, and they leave their shoes in the living room for gifts to be delivered.
Growing up in Mexico with American parents, I was lucky enough to get presents from both Santa Claus and the Reyes Magos. My dad never dressed up as Santa to put presents under a tree, but they did go to the trouble of hiring three actors to play the Three Wise Men. The night of Epiphany, family and friends gather to enjoy a cake (rosca de reyes) and drink hot chocolate.
(Another Reader writer was surprised to find these strange cakes at a Mexican bakery in Clairemont three years ago. When he inquired more about the rosca de reyes, he mistakenly heard them tell him they were filled with "baby kisses.")
Though the name implies it should be round, the rosca de reyes is an oval-shape baked good, many times filled with cajeta (caramel), cheese, or other goodies. Sweetened dried fruit and sugar are spread on top. Inside the rosca you will also find plastic figurines of a naked little boy depicting the Christ Child, el Bebito Jésus (not "baby kisses"). One to five figurines are inside, depending on the size of the cake.
Whoever gets Baby Jesus during Epiphany is responsible for planning or bringing the tamales and atole (a corn-flour drink) to the Fiesta de la Calendaria on February 2nd. Usually everyone jokes about it, but no one takes getting baby Jesus seriously and the tamales party never happens.
“They look gross,” my American roommate reacted when I told him I wanted to get a rosca de reyes and have friends over for hot chocolate (and beers) last night. He knew nothing about the tradition, and I can’t blame him: Mexicans have a holiday almost every day of the year.
I went to the nearest bakery, which had a huge line of people buying roscas. The shelves emptied while all other breads were ignored. I asked the security guard if he could let me take pictures. He said no and went to get the manager. The manager also told me I couldn’t take pictures. Disappointed by their decision, I didn’t buy a rosca there and went to the supermarket next door.
The supermarket had a mountain of roscas — for a third of the bakery's price. I grabbed the smallest one for $2.50 and shared it with my roommate. No Epiphany party, though. The weather wasn’t the best. The small rosca had one plastic baby Jesus and it was on the last piece of the cake under the sweetened dried fig.
Looking for roscas in San Diego? Try Northgate Gonzalez Markets, Panchita's Bakery, Panaderia La Buena, Sammy’s Mexican Bakery, and Chinese Mexico Lindo Bakery.