With Christmas fading into memory for most families, the holiday didn't end for about 70 of Baltimore's Hispanic children until they received gifts yesterday from three wise men draped in robes of green, orange and gold.
In single file, the children marched up the aisle at La Iglesia Episcopal de los Tres Santos Reyes (Episcopal Church of the Three Holy Kings) in Canton to greet the three bearded visitors who had made a stirring entrance through a corner door.
Then, they hurried back to their seats with a brightly wrapped puzzle or board game -- and feeling for a centuries-old tradition in Latin America and Spain.
"When I was growing up in Puerto Rico, it wasn't Santa Claus -- it was the three kings," said Gerrilyn Baez, who brought her five sons to the event. "To me, this is a celebration that should be carried on."
Observed for hundreds of years throughout Latin America and Spain, the Three Kings Day celebration came to the small brick church on South Potomac Street for the third consecutive year. The church is in the heart of the city's Hispanic community, which stretches from Fells Point to O'Donnell Heights.
The event was sponsored by Education-Based Latino Outreach (EBLO), a secular organization that tutors children and adults in English and other skills needed to succeed in the United States.
Jose Ruiz, EBLO's executive director, said the group also wants to make sure that important traditions don't fade as families assimilate.
"This is part of our culture," said Ruiz, who emigrated from Puerto Rico. "When Latino children come to this country, they kind of abandon it. They become Americanized. We didn't want to lose this aspect of our tradition."
Based on biblical account
Traditionally, Three Kings Day is Jan. 6 -- the Feast of the Epiphany -- and in Spanish-speaking countries work often stops. The festivities here are often held on a Saturday so children can attend without missing school.
The celebration is based on the biblical account of the three kings, or magi, who traveled to Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for baby Jesus. In Latin countries, many children leave hay under their beds for the kings' camels to eat during their nightlong journey. The next morning, they awake to find the hay replaced by a gift.
In the United States, the holiday has been marked for many years by organized celebrations in larger, established Hispanic communities. In New York, the day includes a parade -- with camels and costumed kings -- that snakes through the streets of Spanish Harlem.
Baltimore's Hispanic population, though relatively small, has been growing rapidly the past decade. Yesterday's turnout was an indication of the community's diversity, with families from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Peru, El Salvador, Honduras and other nations.
The festivities began with performances by guitarists who led the pews of clapping children in traditional songs. Javier Bustamante, an EBLO board member, told the biblical story before introducing the costumed magi, who took their seats in ornately carved wooden chairs.
As the children accepted their gifts, helpers dropped the presents in plastic shopping bags.
The celebration concluded downstairs with a lunch of rice and beans, roast pork and tamales. Before long, the children were playing with their model cars, board games, footballs and puzzles.
'Not just to entertain'
Marcos Matos, who received a "Lost World" game and mittens, came to Baltimore from the Dominican Republic two years ago.
"When I was down there, we left water and grass for the camels and cigarettes for the king," said Marcos, 12, a seventh-grader at Holabird Middle School. "Then, my mother took it all and put presents under the bed. Instead of coming down the chimney, my mother told me they came in under the door."
William Mejia, the son of Honduran emigrants, said this was the first time he'd celebrated the holiday. He seemed drawn less to the presents than to the biblical story, which he explained in detail.
"We shouldn't celebrate for the wrong reasons," said William, 14. "We have the play to show the people what happened. It's not just to entertain."
Said 16-year-old Lewis Simbala: "It's pretty cool. This keeps alive the old tradition." Lewis' mother came from Cuba, his father from Ecuador.
'Finally close Christmas'
Perhaps nobody was happier yesterday than the Rev. Roberto Maldonado, pastor of the East Baltimore church, who clapped the loudest and took pride in the gifts distributed. There were no toy guns, just toys that encourage children to build and create.
"The volunteers put in lots of effort to select these toys," he said. "We want toys to build things up, not tear things down."
He added, "In some cases, these are the only toys some will get.
"This is a way to finally close Christmas."
Pub Date: 1/10/99