For a sweet start to the new year you can’t beat the Mexican tradition of Three Kings Day, a festive holiday held January 6 that officially marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas and pays tribute to the Three Wise Men bearing gifts for the baby Jesus.
Before the invasion from El Norte by Santa Claus, along with sparkling lights and gift giving on December 25, Mexican families sat around the dining table tearing off hunks of rosca de reyes and into dipping them into steaming cups of hot chocolate, usually made with water. Many still do.
Rosca de reyes, literally the kings’ wreath, is a yeast dough enriched with whole eggs. A treat of baked deliciousness, it is laden with candied fruits and sometimes nuts and the best are made with pure butter.
The bread comes in various circumferences, round and elliptical. Bakers use their own creative ingenuity to embellish the decoration but each year, it seems, the rosca becomes more elaborate.
This year I saw the loaves topped with chocolate cookie dough, reminiscent of the concha, Mexico’s favorite breakfast sweet roll.
January 6 is a day of visiting, too. Godparents, the padrinos who were asked by the parents to sponsor a child’s baptism, will usually visit their godchildren today. Like the Three Wise Men, they bring gifts, a rosca de reyes and chocolate for making the hot drink.
They will sit a while, dip bread into hot chocolate, exchange news, bounce babies on knees or talk to the grandparents. No one is in a hurry. Relationships take time.
At the market in the Zapotec village of Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, where I live, the bread section is given over to roscas. “The recipe is a secret. I will go to my grave with it,” said a woman selling roscas at a popular puesto, or stall, when I asked her to share the ingredients. I assured her I wasn’t asking for the recipe. Nevertheless, she was stalwart.
Hints of the ingredients came at my next stop. Elisa Vicente Martínez, who speaks perfect English, advised me that the bakers in her family use flour, eggs, water, butter, yeast and sugar. She, too, would not give away the family recipe.
Her husband and mother-in-law carry on a long family tradition. Elisa, who grew up in Moorpark, California, returned to the village three years ago at age 17 to get married. She lives and works with her husband’s family, as is the tradition.
Some families use a mix of vegetable oil and butter, perhaps fewer eggs. You can often tell because the dough is more white than yellow, a sign of the difference in quantity and quality of ingredients.
In this village, the cost of the rosca de reyes may only vary by five pesos from one vendor to the next. The smallest is 10 pesos for a six-inch-diameter bread. That’s about 50 cents US. The price goes up to 150 (US $7.50) for a bread to serve a family of 10. In Oaxaca city, a rosca de reyes can sell for 240 pesos or more.
Grisel Maldonado, who just moved back to Teotitlán del Valle with her family after living in La Puente, California, for 12 years, tells me her family hasn’t raised bread prices even though fuel and food costs have risen.
They are here because they like the traditions of their culture. She is 18, trilingual (Spanish, Zapotec and English) and wants to go to university.
A unique feature of this bread is that small plastic dolls are incorporated into the dough before baking. I’ve also discovered, after years of eating this New Year’s treat, that there seem to be many more plastic baby dolls in the bread now.
And for good reason. Whoever has the luck of getting the little doll, a symbol of the baby Jesus, embedded in their slice is called upon to host a large family tamale party on the Día de la Candelaria, or Candlemas, February 2.
Everybody loves tamales and not many escape this honor. This date closes the Christmas season and begins the transition to Easter with Mardi Gras and Lent.
Mexican life revolves around the cycle and celebration of festivals as we pass through the seasons, a seamless series of events that bring family and friends together. From the largest cities to the smallest villages, these traditions are respected, observed and honored.
Three Kings Day becomes part of how the New Year brings sweetness home and continues the tradition of gift giving – gold, incense and myrhh – established millennia ago.
Today, bakeries, pastry shops and markets throughout Mexico will be filled with rosca de reyes. You may even see home bakers setting up tables on sidewalks outside their front doors.
In villages throughout Mexico, the bakers are usually men and the women are charged with selling. I met Lourdes Bautista Martínez in the Teotitlán del Valle market selling rosca de reyes with her brother Francisco and his brother-in-law, Reynoldo Martínez Sosa, both bakers.
As I drove through the Jalatlaco neighborhood of Oaxaca city, I spotted the Inéz Sánchez Echeverria family selling their version of rosca de reyes, a sweet pound cake called panque adorned with fruits made in the family kitchen by mother and sons.
How will you celebrate Día de Los Tres Reyes? Perhaps Day of the Three Kings is an opportunity to connect with friends and neighbors or nearby family, to break bread together or share a rosca.
Don’t forget to dip the sweet bread into hot chocolate. It’s a great way to start a New Year tradition with Latin American roots. Enjoy. Buen provecho!
Norma Schafer is a writer and photographer based in Oaxaca, Mexico, and contributor to the guidebook, Textile Fiestas of Mexico. She travels the country to explore its art and culture and offers study tours and workshops that investigate the textile traditions of weaving, natural dyeing and related handwork. Her bio, blog and website are at http://oaxacaculture.com.