This was a wonderful year for Christmas lights in my City Heights neighborhood. They cheerfully, often exuberantly, illuminated the night from the day after Thanksgiving until the day after New Year’s. It is sad to see them extinguished, put away, for yet another year, although ours stay up in the house year round. You can never have enough illumination in the darkness…
But that is not to say the seasonal celebrations are over- far from it. Sunday January 6th is the Three Kings Day celebration in Mexico and other Spanish speaking cultures; it is also Orthodox Christmas Eve for those religious traditions based upon the Julian calendar, as opposed to our Gregorian calendar. What that boils down to is that I have to order my rosca de reyes so that I can take it to our Orthodox Christmas Eve dinner.
Many years ago the local panadería provided my first introduction to the rosca, a Mexican sweet bread in the form of a large ring adorned with chopped fruit and flavored with cinnamon, vanilla and anise. Tucked and baked into the batter is a small Jesus figurine- el muñequito. This figurine represents the flight of Jesus from King Herod who planned to thwart the appearance of the prophesied messiah by killing the first born sons.
The Kings’ Ring- rosca- commemorates the arrival of the three kings in Bethlehem, on the date which is also referred to as the Epiphany. The person who receives the slice of rosca with the muñequito is expected to throw a tamale party on February 2, which corresponds to Candlemas- Día de la Candelaria. (Feb 2 also corresponds to Groundhog Day, an odd German- Candlemas conflation.)
In Mexico, it is the Three Kings who traditionally bring gifts to the children. Javier de la Torre on TV Azteca a few years ago was tracking the whereabouts of Los Reyes Magos with the same earnestness and delight as NORAD tracking the whereabouts of Santa Claus. I suspect that Santa Claus has eclipsed Los Reyes in City Heights, but perhaps there will be a few kids who will leave their shoes outside with dried grass for the camels and find them filled with presents the following morning.
Orthodox Christmas is January 7. Orthodox Christians are not Catholics who use a different calendar. The biggest difference between the two is that Catholics acknowledge the pope as their spiritual leader, while Orthodox Christians acknowledge a patriarch within their specific sub-group that identifies along national and ethnic lines. Here in San Diego we have Greek, Syriac, Antiochan, Coptic, Ethiopian, Romanian, Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches.
My family included an Eastern European mother who was part Rusyn/Ruthenian. On the high religious holidays of Easter and Christmas we attended a long incomprehensible midnight mass in Old Slavonic at the Russian or Greek Orthodox church.
What I remember the most about Orthodox Christmas was the traditional foods. Turkey was unheard of- we ate ham. The cookies and cakes were divine. The main ingredients were nuts, poppyseed, honey, and lekvar- prune butter. Here in San Diego we celebrate Russian Christmas Eve with friends and will dine upon Holy Roman Empire sauerkraut, kielbasa, poppyseed cake, rosca and finish everything off with ice cold vodka and a rousing toast to everyone’s health and happiness.
These are just two examples of the ongoing celebrations. The longest Christmas celebration that I am aware of occurs in San Juan Puerto Rico. My family there will be partying off and on through January 22! In San Diego, the House of Puerto Rico in Balboa Park will celebrate El Día de Reyes on Saturday, January 5.
Here in City Heights we adjust our disparate traditions to the demands of work and the limitations upon our free time to cook, socialize- and recover. That is even more reason to savor a slice of sweetness, a cold bracing drink and the warmth of friendship and family. Let us celebrate!
This originally appeared at San Diego Free Press.