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Happy Three Kings Day! Families Celebrate Across U.S.

Image:  People enjoy the Cabalgata Los Reyes Magos (Cavalcade of the three kings) the day before Epiphany, in Pamplona, northern Spain, Monday, Jan. 5, 2015.

People enjoy the Cabalgata Los Reyes Magos (Cavalcade of the three kings) the day before Epiphany, in Pamplona, northern Spain, Monday, Jan. 5, 2015. It is a parade symbolizing the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem following the birth of Jesus. In Spain and many Latin American countries Epiphany is the day when gifts are exchanged. Alvaro Barrientos / AP

Three Kings Day on January 6th is widely celebrated in Spain, Latin America and the Caribbean, and for many U.S. Latinos, it is still a venerated tradition. The holiday comes from the traditional Christian feast day of Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men brought gifts to the baby Jesus in recognition of his divine nature, according to the Biblical nativity story.

For many Hispanics, el Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos is more symbolic of Christmas - with its biblical story involving the baby Jesus - than Santa Claus. But just like Santa, children wake up January 6th to presents and sometimes candy left by the three Wise Men Gaspar, Melchor and Baltasar.

Houston, Texas resident Claudia Deschamps, who grew up in Mexico, recently described what her family will be doing on Three King's Day: "A Rosca de Reyes, (a large oval shaped bread with dried fruit decorations - like a King's Cake) will be bought. In it, there will be one or several little plastic dolls, symbolizing baby Jesus. Each person will cut his/her own piece and if you get a plastic doll, the tamalada is on you! Party at your house with tamales on February 2, the Día de la Candelaria."

In Westchester County, New York, The Online Mom website founder Monica Vila was busy hiding a few small presents under her daughter's bed on the evening of January 5th, known as Víspera de Reyes, or Three Kings Eve.

The holiday brings back great memories from her childhood; she remembers she always got new pajamas from the Three Kings and drank hot chocolate with her family in Mexico. "I loved it more that Christmas, no pressure to get big presents, just a lot of family love," said Vila.

In the warm tropics like Puerto Rico, it is easy for children to get one chore done before the Three Kings arrive - kids have to go outside and put some grama (grass) or hay in a box, usually a shoebox, and leave it for the camels to eat. The camels ferry the Three Kings from house to house, like the reindeer transport Santa.

In New Jersey, Miguel Perez, author of Hidden Hispanic Heritage.com and a columnist and professor, said he still exchanges presents with his 22-year old daughter, preserving an important tradition that was a big part of his childhood in Cuba. His family has traditionally split the presents between December 25th and January 6th.

"It's our own holiday for Hispanic children; it's a great opportunity to instill our culture," he said. "It's a real shame that some people have told me 'I've forgotten about that' when I talk about Three Kings. While Santa has been overpowering, there's no reason we can't do both."

One of Perez's favorite articles was one he wrote several years ago about the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Bergenline Avenue in Union City, New Jersey. He went to different Korean-owned stores, and the owners had no idea why they were selling so many toys after December 25th.

"There is a huge market here (in the U.S.) that toymakers and retailers are not even exploiting," said Perez, noting that while Christmas is very commercialized, this is not the case for Three Kings.

Several cities are holding Three Kings celebrations on Tuesday. New York City's top officials will be attending the annual Three Kings Parade started 38 years ago by former El Museo del Barrio director Jack Agüeros, who passed away last year and who will be remembered at the event. Chicago will also have the Dia De Los Reyes Desfile Invernal (the Three Kings Winter Parade) organized by the Division Street Business Development Association.

--Sandra Lilley