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Three Kings Day in Mexico, a holiday in flux

January 6, 2011 |  2:32 pm

Reyes magos mexico city

It might be hard to imagine, but the streets of Mexico City these past few days have been more jammed than they normally are with vendors hawking food and cheap gifts. Today, Jan. 6, is Three Kings Day. In Mexico that means the happiest day of the year for boys and girls who wait with giddy anticipation for the "reyes magos" to bring them presents.

And this being Mexico, Three Kings Day is also another healthy excuse to have a big street party.

Consider the scene this week at the Alameda Central, the downtown Mexico City park historians describe as the oldest planned urban green space in the Americas. There are mechanical rides, snack stands, carnival games, and the main draw: enormous stages where children pose for photographs with three live "reyes magos" in elaborate beards and costumes. They're meant to represent the "wise men" who in the Bible followed a star to Bethlehem where the baby Jesus had just been born, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Today, after opening presents, families in Mexico break a traditional rosca de reyes, a circular breadloaf coated in candied fruits.

"It's a beautiful tradition, whether it's here or anywhere else," said Antonia Perez, who watched as her grandchildren played inside huge inflatable spheres floating on pools of water, a popular new "ride" at the Alameda Central reyes magos fair. (Watch original video by La Plaza here.)

It was almost 1:30 a.m. this morning, and kids in sparkly crowns and face-paint were out way past their bedtime with parents in the late-night valley chill, as if they were on a Sunday afternoon stroll.

For almost two weeks since the fair sprung up, the nightly crowds at the Alameda appear endless, waiting in long lines for their photo session with their reyes magos chosen from the 40 stages set up by photographers who were awarded permits to operate in the park. The feria is sensory overload, from the screeching Tilt-a-Whirl rides blasting cumbia and electronic tribal music, to the outrageous reyes magos stages, outfitted with neon lights and (surely unlicensed) replicas of figures from the "Toy Story" franchise.

Here's a little of what it sounds like.

Feria alameda central daniel hernandez

Santa Who?

Mexicans do not have the same relationship with Christmas as Americans do. Here, Santa Claus remains an alien figure, peddled mostly on billboards or in slick television commercials. Mexican children instead send their gift wishes to the "reyes magos" in letters attached to balloons that are released into the sky in the days before Jan. 6.

Shrewdly, parents utilize the mythical kings -- Melchor, Gaspar and Baltazar — as good-behavior bait: "Behave in school, or the reyes magos won't bring you presents this year!"

Young adults in Mexico today still recall with bemusement the horror of discovering the "reyes magos" don't actually exist. Victor Correa, a 28-year-old travel consultant, said he was traumatized when a cousin revealed to him that their parents were in fact the bringer of gifts on Reyes Magos, as the holiday is called for short.

"He asked for an American football. He told me, 'The reyes are your parents.' We searched the house, and found the football," Correa said. "I was so big already! I think I was in middle school. And I was still asking for presents!"

For the consumer goods market in Mexico, Reyes Magos extends the holiday shopping season past New Year's Day and results in a frenzy of buying that makes some stores and markets in Mexico City feel like Black Friday in the U.S. The holiday places extra pressures on parents pinched by the current economic recession, as the "reyes magos" are so revered by kids that being denied a requested gift is virtually out of the question.

It's such a big deal that President Felipe Calderon split a rosca with his family at the presidential residence Los Pinos on Wednesday. In La Prensa, an old-school Mexico City tabloid, there were no less than 13 articles related to the holiday in Thursday's edition.

Alameda central rey baltazar

Traditions Changing

U.S.-style attitudes toward consumer goods and electronics are encroaching on Mexican traditions each year. The national small business association (known by its acronym Canacope) estimated that this Reyes Magos, more than 90% of gift requests would include "trendy toys" such as video games, cellphones or iPods. Most Reyes Magos gifts are bought in the informal market these days — as in on the street — or at mega-chains such as Wal-Mart, Mexico's largest private employer.

In contrast, the Canacope said, fewer children each year ask for hand-made wooden toys and educational games that once dominated the holiday's spoils, hurting small Mexican toymakers and sellers.

At the Alameda, the holiday fair is also in a state of flux. Santa Claus is slowly appearing alongside characters from the latest hit animated films. This year the Reyes Magos stages returned after three years of being relocated to the Monument to the Revolution, one neighborhood to the west of downtown. The municipal government issued permits for 40 such stands to members of the little-known but lavishly named Union of Five-Minute and Instantaneous or Similar Photographers.

Fatima Correa, one of the photographers, said her family has been in the union for 40 years. Her father started setting up a Reyes Magos stand at the Alameda and her mother makes the wise men's costumes, who are played by cousins. Polaroid cameras were used before; now each stand has its own array of digital cameras, processors, and high-tech printers.

Times have changed, Correa said. The Reyes Magos just aren't the same draw as they used to be.

"Actually, the photo has been the same price for four years now" — between 70 and 100 pesos, or about $8 — "and sales have really dropped this year."

— Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Top photo: A family poses with a Reyes Magos panaroma at the Alameda Central in Mexico City. Middle photo: Rides at the Alameda. Bottom photo: A man dressed as Baltazar, one of the wise men. Credit: Daniel Hernandez / La Plaza

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