I may not be lucky when it comes to love and money, but when it comes to travel, I manage to be in the right place at the right time fairly frequently.
Case in point: I arrived in Morelia (the capital city of the state of Michoacán), Mexico the day before a major holiday – El Día de los Reyes. It must have been in the back of my mind somewhere that Mexicans treat January 6th, also known as King’s Day or the Feast of the Epiphany, as a holiday as important as Christmas. But, until I arrived in this city of 1.5 million people, I’d forgotten all about it.
My hotel was located about twenty-five meters from Morelia’s main square, ground zero for all festivities, so I was reminded fairly quickly. For starters, the roads all around the cathedral were closed. People were packed into the park adjacent to the city’s Cathedral, and the park itself featured a rather gaudy assortment of nacimientos, or Nativity scenes – a display that had been sponsored by a local government employees’ union. Cheap toys were for sale everywhere I looked.
El Día de los Reyes celebrates the twelfth day of Christmas, the day when Christians believe that the Magi arrived at the site of Jesus’ birth. In many Latin American countries, including Mexico, gifts are exchanged on this day, not on Christmas. Some people have adopted the idea of Santa Claus and give some gifts on December 25th as well, but, in Mexico, children still receive most of their gifts on January 6th. They are told that their presents come from the kings, and prior to the holidays, many children write down their wishes, put them in helium balloons, and launch them in to the air.
Around 4pm on January 5th, the night preceding the holiday, folding tables started filling the fenced-off space in front of the Cathedral. An hour later, people began forming lines down all of the side streets surrounding the enclosed area. They were very well-behaved lines, and they were filled with children wearing paper crowns that reminded me of the ones my brother and I wore at Burger King restaurants in the 1970’s.
“Excuse me, but what are you all waiting for?” I asked one man.
“La Rosca de los Reyes,” he answered.
Rosca means “wreath,” and it’s the term that Mexicans use to describe a traditional holiday treat that is similar to what some Americans call King Cake. La Rosca de los Reyes is more like a sweet bread, and, like King Cake, it is formed in the shape of a crown. It is adorned with brightly-colored fruits meant to resemble jewels. A little plastic figuring representing the Baby Jesus is cooked into each cake, and tradition has it that whomever receives the trinket-embedded slice is responsible for hosting a party on El Día de las Candelarias, or Candlemas, the official end of the long Christmas season, celebrated on February 2nd.
“They give it out for free to everyone,” the man added.
“Is it really good?” I just couldn’t understand why anyone would wait in line this long for a slice of cake you could get one at any bakery for about twenty-five cents.
“No, but the kids love it. It’s a tradition. Everyone we know comes here for this. And we come every year.”
Ah, right. Tradition. Tradition is something that is not a part of my life. I went to the movies on Christmas Eve. I think I had Thai food for dinner, but I already don’t remember exactly where. I didn’t buy gifts for anyone, and only received a single (very generous) one. I’ve only put up a Christmas tree once in my adult life (it was an ex-boyfriend’s idea), and I own no ornaments. I rode my mountain bike and went to a vegan restaurant on Thanksgiving. I was asleep by 10pm on New Year’s Eve. You get the point.
And yet, when I see thousands of people braving epic traffic, road closures, and expensive parking to line up for a slice of free cake, I wonder if I might be missing out on something. There were a lot of smiles in those lines, and a lot of hugs and kisses as well.
I snuck up to the tables in order to get a look at the handouts. For some reason, the man guarding one of the holes in the fencing waved me through, so I got a piece of the rosca without having to wait in line. To be honest, it was terrible. I took one bite and threw it out.
Still, I later found out that I had gotten my hands on a slice of a truly impressive baked good. The Morelia newspaper reported the cake to have contained 3000 pounds of flour, 1500 pounds of margarine, 10,500 eggs, 150 liters of milk, 35 pounds of yeast, 35 pounds of salt, 225 pounds of butter, 2000 pounds of dried fruits, and 90 pounds of orange peel. Ten bakeries worked on the project together, and had the cake been stretched out in a line, it would have measured two kilometers.
Believe it or not, Morelia’s Rosca de los Reyes pales in comparison to Mexico City’s. Theirs was 1.2 MILES long, weighed 10 tons, and produced 250,000 slices. People called it the “mega-rosca.”
I guess I could go there next year – that would make it some kind of tradition for me. But there are a lot of other places out there…and foods…and cultural customs to sample…