You’d wake up in the morning wondering if they were still there but you didn’t want to meet them, afraid of the magic of their passage still infusing the lighted Christmas tree in the living room, down the hall from the doorway of your bedroom.
Christmas toys were small, peremptory tokens that fulfilled a duty since you went to an American school in which instruction took place in English. Both Cuban and US holidays were observed. They’d told you all about Halloween and Santa Claus coming to your house with gifts on Christmas Eve. We had no problem taking small toys from Santa Claus, but the important ones—bicycles, Lone Ranger costumes and fake Peacemaker revolvers, Tonto action figures, Zorro’s secret hideout (a miniature plastic mountain), were brought by the Three Magic Kings on January 6.
Train sets were also delivered, which you weren’t old enough to assemble, but which delighted you by running round on a single track on their own power. It made perfect sense: the heavy gifts were brought by carriers in a caravan, rather than stuffing all the toys for the world’s children into one sled driven by a portly, crimson old man. Besides, it was ludicrous to imagine polar reindeer in the Caribbean.
This was during the early days of the Castro revolution, before Christmas was banned and the Three Kings were no longer honored in Cuba.
The story of the Wise Men and the Star of Bethlehem belongs to Matthew. The story of the shepherds and the “multitude” of angels in the night sky belongs exclusively to Luke. Both Matthew and Luke regard Jesus as a Native of Bethlehem, not of Nazareth, as Mark and John seem to do. Bethlehem was near Jerusalem in Judea; Nazareth was in Galilee.
The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in Matthew. Gabriel—Angel of the Annunciation—appears to the Virgin Mary and later to the shepherds on the fields in Luke’s narrative. There is no stable or manger in Matthew. When the Three Kings “were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him.” (KJV, Mat. 2:11)
The journey of the Holy Family in Luke is from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. The exodus in Matthew is from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape persecution. After years of exile, Jesus, Joseph and Mary go to dwell in Nazareth to avoid the reign of Archelaus, son of Herod.
My devotion for the Three Kings derives from my Spanish grandmother. Beginning Christmas Eve she would sing a song that made it seem as if the Kings were perpetually journeying through the desert:
Tan tan, van por el desierto,
tan tan, Melchor y Gaspar.
Detrás les sigue un negrito
que todos le llaman
el Rey Baltasar.
On the eve of Epiphany we’d place buckets of corn and pails of water outside the house for the camels. (Years later in Puerto Rico we’d fill buckets with grass and water, because on that blessed island it was legend that the Kings traveled on horses.) This was done to provide refreshments for the caravan, so it could continue on its journey.
A caravan was an enterprise that traveled desert paths to bring commerce and magical objects from the East to a holy child—offerings at the time of his birth which also signified the hour of his trial. The Nativity scene under the Christmas tree was not only a reminder of the birth of Jesus, but also a memorial that told the story of the great journey of the Kings. Opening their gifts, you realized that you (yourself) were the god-made flesh, and that the universe was rendering tribute to you. Their journey was all about you, once again born, re-born with gifts under the light of the star.
When I return to my time and place of origin, the Kings always await me during Epiphany. Once, during a terrible winter, I recovered my blue-eyed daughters and my handsome son on Twelfth Night. Ever since then the color of the season, and the magic of the Kings, has always been blue.