Beginning with grapes, a lot of wishes are made and sent upward here between New Year's Eve and Epiphany. Twelve seconds before midnight of this new 2007, Patricio and I began stuffing those large purple globes into our mouths, making silent wishes for the twelve months to come, a hope expressed for each of the twelve sweet and seedy grapes. Having gone in for the loveliness of their shape, we'd forgotten to take into account their size; midnight rang out with the explosion of fireworks in the street, and with full mouths, we still had two or three to go. Believing in good luck for ourselves, in spite of our post-midnight bites, we sent our last desires up and out into the air, hopeful and even confident in another year of fine things from the future.
In the week that followed, children's wishes became tangible references, written into letters and sent skyward on the string of a Three Kings balloon. An environmental bugbear of a tradition, it's still a whimsical rite of touching innocence, where desire hasn't quite yet crossed the border to greed. Santa isn't the only fellow to tackle a sudden onslaught of holiday season missives; the Magi also collaborate on judging a little one's year of behavior against a letter that details what they want for being good. In recent decades, Santa has been making deliveries in Mexico, too, but those wise men have been kings of the gifting realm for many more.
In anticipation of their arrival on the eve of January 6, children pour out their hearts on paper to the Tres Reyes Magos--the Three Magi Kings--Gaspar, Melchor and Baltazar*, then tie their letters tight onto that special helium-filled courier service, full of faith in the mysteries of air mail. Knowing that Jesus received nothing less than gold, frankincense and myrrh from those men, it's hard not to trust in the arrival of something wonderful when they wake up early on the Día de los Reyes, the Kings' Day.
Many may have given a preview to their letters' content when meeting the Magi, their chance to stand or sit for a minute with them in front of a camera. Dressed in elaborate costumes of satins, baubles, trimming and beads, their appearance represents more than what Matthew recorded as their origins "from the east." Perhaps because they have been viewed as symbols of Noah's sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, who tradition holds as having peopled Asia, Africa and Europe, respectively, or perhaps due to the Moorish influence in Spain, the Magi often include a turbaned king of African descent. Always, though, like Santa, they include an aura that makes kids' eyes light up most often with delight--and occasional terror--in their physical presence.
And whether or not their Día de los Reyes wishes fully come true, most will still end the day with a sweet taste on their tongues. Rich, oval rosca de reyes bread, with candied fruits crowning the sugar-glazed top, draws the whole family to the dinner table. Secretly, each one wishes they won't serve themselves a slice with the baby figurine tucked deep inside.
If they do, they'll be bearing the gift of a tamale dinner for everyone come Candlemas on February 2. And I'm sure the tamalero was wishing that plenty of babies made the cut, so to speak. It would make for a sweet way to begin these twelve months of the year, a lot like glutting on those hope-laden grapes.
*For those of you, like me, who enjoy a little irreverence now and then, the Magi's alter egos, otherwise known as the Tres Reyes Vagos are dubbed Malgastar, Malhechor and Vaaasaltar.
(The Three Good-for-Nothing Kings: Waste, Hooligan and He's-Going-to-Mug--a perfect example of humor oh, so lost in translation...)