January 6 is Three Kings Day, or the feast of the Epiphany, for those who celebrate. In Christianity it is recognized as the day three kings traveled to visit the newborn baby Jesus and present him with gifts. In the Mexican tradition, we have a special way of celebrating this day that involves sweet bread and a tiny surprise: Rosca de Reyes.
A Rosca de Reyes is a large, heavily decorated sweet bread baked in the form of a wreath. (Rosca means “wreath” and reyes means “kings” in Spanish.) The little twist is that baked into it usually are a few (depending on the size of the rosca) small plastic baby figures. On Three Kings Day, families gather together to enjoy the rosca and each person cuts their own piece. If your piece happens to be one with the little baby inside, then you are tasked with making (or just bringing) tamales to the next gathering in February. Yes, this tradition is a two-part celebration. In February, the Dia de Candelaria, or Candlemas, is celebrated. This day represents when the baby Jesus was presented at the temple.
Although this tradition is based in Christianity, the Rosca de Reyes itself comes from a Roman/Pagan practice. According to History, at the festival of Saturnalia (to honor the god Saturn) a cake was baked and inside it was a bean. Whoever got the bean got to be king for the day.
Religious or not, the bread tradition brings people together to enjoy a treat and allows everyone to plan ahead for another get together just one month later. My family never celebrated this growing up, but I wish we had. Thankfully I’ve been part of rosca bread breaking with other groups over the years and it’s always enjoyable, so I recommend buying from a local bakery if there are any still available.
COVID safety pro-tip: If you’d prefer to keep your distance but still want to try out the tradition with family or friends, I suggest buying the rosca and dividing it into just a few large pieces. (Hopefully, when you cut the large chunks you don’t end up slicing into the surprise.) You can then individually wrap the large portions of bread and no-contact deliver them to your loved ones. They can cut individual slices out of their large pieces and hope they end up with the baby.