Puerto Ricans Celebrate Three Kings Day In Frigid New England

Jan 7, 2018
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Three Kings Day, the Christian holiday also known as the Epiphany, is an important tradition in Puerto Rico. But this year, the holiday has a special meaning on the mainland for families who have left the island after Hurricane Maria. Ryan Caron King from member station WNPR reports from Hartford, Conn., where Puerto Ricans are adapting the island's celebration to the frigid New England winter.

RYAN CARON KING, BYLINE: Xiomara Vega moved here from Puerto Rico with her 3-year-old daughter after Hurricane Maria knocked out the electricity in her home. She's trying to make a new life here. But she doesn't want to forget her old one and celebrating the arrival of the three kings is a big part of that. Her mom, Lourdes Rodriguez, translates for her and explains a bit more.

LOURDES RODRIGUEZ: Since she was a baby, it's a tradition for her. So every year, she knows they should be coming, like after Santa Claus. She wants to keep that tradition for her, even though she's out here. She doesn't want her to lose that feeling from Puerto Rico.

KING: Part of that tradition is for children to cut grass or hay to put in a box under their beds for the three kings' camels to eat the night before the holiday. In the morning, they'll wake up to presents. It's a celebration of the Bible story - the three kings who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. And in Puerto Rico, it's a more important tradition than Santa Claus, and it's warm there.

In Hartford, where temperatures yesterday dipped below zero with the wind chill, this day was different. It was so cold that the annual parade was canceled. Camels apparently can't take below zero temperatures, and the grass is covered in snow.

RODRIGUEZ: There's no grass to cut. It's cold, and the kids are not used to the cold on Three Kings Day.

KING: But inside a city recreation center, a 20-year tradition of giving out donated gifts to local children continued. Dozens of families lined up to receive unwrapped presents stored in black trash bags so they'd stay a surprise for the kids. Joel Cruz helped organize the event. He says more people than usual registered to receive gifts. And he thinks that's because of the new families who moved here post-Maria.

JOEL CRUZ: You know, they come to the U.S. And we don't mind celebrating having Santa Claus. But we don't want to lose the tradition that we have of having the three kings because, really, this - January 6 is a day that we truly celebrate as a day to give.

KING: Later in the day, there was a smaller gathering at a hurricane relief center across town - this one specifically for families who relocated after the storm. Cruz Cruz was there with his fiance whose grandchildren moved here with their mom from the island after the hurricane.

CRUZ CRUZ: This is their first time they were in the United States. And they didn't know anything about the snow. And they, you know, they have some concern about how the three kings are going to get here. And, you know, we have to explain, but they're having a good time.

KING: Cruz says they celebrated the holiday with the kids to make them feel like they were back in a familiar place. And they had to do a bit of improvising. Remember the grass they weren't able to cut and put under the beds? No problem. Cruz says they used lettuce instead. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Caron King in Hartford.

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