On Sunday, January 3rd, this was where it was at– with the young people, inside the Tivoli Theatre, kids and their parents wearing crowns of shiny red, green and silver, and packed the house. (Even the security guard was wearing a crown.) On stage, news anchor from News Channel 8, Alejandro Negrón, who served as master of ceremonies for the two GALA presentations, one at 11:30 A.M. and a repeat at 2:00 P.M., announced “No matter if you speak Spanish or English, we welcome people from everywhere.” Then he led us into a thrilling Latino bilingual New Year’s Latino celebration, religious for some, of Christmas and the Epiphany.
Honduran singer, María Isolina, with her soul-stirring voice, and her live Sol y Rumba band started our toes tapping to a hypnotic beat of a familiar pop tune, “Stand By Me.” A percussionist created a rhythmic, grating sound, scraping a stick up and down notches in a hollowed out gourd, called a güiro, a native musical instrument. We were in a Latino world.
Enter the Three Kings, Wise Men, or Magi, played by Bienvenido Martinez as Balthasar, José Sueiro as Gaspar, and Héctor Diaz as Melchior, who are following the star in the East. They stand by Mary (Tsaitami Duchiela), holding the swaddled infant Jesus, Joseph (Chema Pineda-Fernández) and an angel (Neena Krutha) in the nativity scene. A burro, named Applesauce and a baby goat, dubbed “Buddy” add reality. (Animals supplied by Leesburg Animal Park).
The Kings take turns telling the timeless story, about following the brightly-lit star in the east that leads to the Bethlehem manger on the day of Epiphany, after the birth of Jesus, traditionally the twelfth night after December 25th, on January 6th. “Where are we now?” asks one King. “Washington D.C.,” the children cry out, opening up the interactive audience engagement.
Respect for different cultures is shown as the Kings tell about how legends differ. But the theme of caring for the animals is universal. On the night before Epiphany, the children in Puerto Rico leave hay and grass in shoe boxes placed under their beds for the camels and burros. Epiphany celebrates the day that Jesus is confirmed as a supernatural, divine being. The next morning, the children find presents under their beds.
In Mexico, however, children leave their shoes by the windows hoping the Kings will fill them with gifts. Then the following day, the families enjoy a circular, sweet Mexican cake baked with a ceramic doll placed in the center that represents the infant Jesus. Similar practices are followed throughout the Caribbean, Mezzo-America, and in South American countries. When Miami, Florida (U.S.), was also mentioned, as if it was a separate country, it got a big laugh.
The visual high points from the youth dance groups were spectacular. Los Quetzales, directed by Laura Ortiz, in the 11:30 A.M. show, gave a group of young people a chance to high-step and twirl, dressed in full, skirts, rich with colors of lime-green, bright Fuchsia pink-reds, and dark purple-blue skirts. The audience pitched in with celebratory cries. In the second 2:00 P.M. performance, more dancers were added, one dressed in turquoise, and another in bright red. The female dancers were partnered by athletic, stamping young men, who wore broad-brimmed black hats. When the couples danced the famous Mexican Hat Dance, the audience clapped along and cheered. Musical accompaniment was piped-in.
Then the popular youth dance group Alma Boliviana, dressed in black-and-white, sequined costumes, and knee-high boots with bells attached, danced traditional Bolivian dances, like the Caporales, a “jumping” dance, that originated from African slaves. This folk dance includes women and is popular in the festivals of Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Peru. It’s a dance filled with pride, lots of strutting, leaping and stamping on the part of the macho male dancers.
After the three Kings presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child, the announcement was made: “We also have a gift for you,” indicating the time for the children in the audience to come up on-stage. They lined up and picked a present from the table, piled high with gifts, donated from local stores.
As for combining the Anglo and Latino holiday customs of gift-giving, several Latino-American parents told me they celebrated both in the United States. When asked which tradition her family observed, one mother joyfully told me that Santa Claus came down the chimney and the three wise men dropped off gifts. “That way, if a child doesn’t get everything on a wish list on Christmas Day, there is a second chance the wish will be granted on Three Kings Day,” she said, smiling.
For some, the Three Kings Festival/Fiesta de los Tres Reyes Magos, is an anticipated, annual family ritual. For a group of young Washington D.C. students, it was a homework assignment. But for some, like Mirian Henry, whose mother was visiting from Honduras and doesn’t speak English, it was a first-time thrill. Her husband was surfing on the Internet and they decided to come and were delighted.
Together we walked around the block in bright sunlight, starting at 1:00 P.M. at the corner of Park Road, along Monroe Street, and ended back on 14th Street N.W. in front of the Tivoli Theatre. The procession/posada included the burros, goats, sheep from the street petting zoo for the children and, of course, the Three Kings. The parade of actors and audience served as a community bonding for the neighborhood.
Suddenly the realization hit me. We were celebrating the greatest gift of all– the gift of life!
The Three Kings Day Celebration/Fiesta de los Tres Reyes Magos will take place again next year, same location at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, now celebrating its 40th anniversary.