The Three Kings Is One of Puerto Rico's Most Loved Traditions

La talla de santos en madera es una de las tradiciones populares más antiguas de Puerto Rico. Es muy común en las Promesas de Reyes que los asistentes lleven figuras de los Tres Reyes Magos, como esta, a la ceremonia. Imagen tomada por Wilma Colón y subida a Facebook. Utilizada con autorización.

The wooding carvings of saints is one of the oldest popular Puerto Rican traditions. It is very common in the Promesa de Reyes for participants to bring figurines of the Three Kings, like those in the picture, to the ceremony. Image taken by Wilma Colón. Used with permission.

In Puerto Rico, as well as in other Latin American countries and Spain, January 6 is the Día de Reyes or Day of the Kings, a tradition which celebrates the Epiphany — the Three Kings or Wise Men visiting the new born baby Jesus.

For Puerto Rico, the holiday has great cultural importance, given that in the past this was the main day of celebration during the festive period. It is so important, in fact, that in Puerto Rico they coined the verb reyar, which means to go out in groups asking for donations or gifts.

The Three Kings are traditionally known as Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. In Puerto Rico, these are also the names given to the three stars forming Orion's Belt, which is visible on the northern hemisphere during the winter months.

Those who are particularly religious celebrate the tradition of the Promesa de Reyes or Kings’ Promise. Dolma Irizarry describes it in a Facebook post as follows:

La Promesa de Reyes es la costumbre de invocar a los Santos Reyes Melchor, Gaspar y Baltasar, para su intervención en un momento de necesidad, para la solución de alguna situación que está fuera de su alcance. A cambio de la petición concedida, quien celebra e invita, hace un pacto o compromiso de pagar esa promesa.

The Promesa de Reyes is the tradition of asking the Three Kings, Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, to intervene in a moment of need, or for help in a situation which is out of your control. In exchange of a granted wish, you must make a pact or promise to the Kings.

The Promesa de Reyes resembles a ritual in the Catholic Church known as the rosario cantado, a musical custom of alternating song and prayer.

In the following Spanish-language video, you can watch the Promesa de Reyes being celebrated at a family home in the town of Aguadilla on the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico:

While it was once just the most faithful of devotees who participated in the Promesas de Reyes, more and more cultural institutions are now getting involved with the festivities. Rather than just a gathering of friends and relatives, people who don't necessarily personally know the host might take part, deciding to join in whether to show solidarity or for the cultural value of the experience. Such is the case for Jaime Torres Torres, who wrote about the Promesa de las Reyes for the website Fundación Nacional para la Cultura Popular (FNCP) after his experience on January:

Cada interpretación siento que ascendió como incienso al trono del Altísimo, a los compases de peticiones muy nobles, como paz para Borikén [Puerto Rico] y sus familias, respeto a nuestra cultura, trabajo pa’ los desempleados, justicia social, la sanación de alguna enfermedad, respaldo financiero para la obra sin fines de lucro de la F.N.C.P., la solución de nuestra condición política para, como un pueblo unido, enfrentar los retos de la segunda década del Siglo XXI y la excarcelación del preso político Oscar López Rivera.

Through each rendition it felt as though we were rising like incense to God's own throne, to the rhythms of such bold pleas as peace for Borikén [Puerto Rico] and its people, respect for our culture, work for the unemployed, social justice, the healing of an illness, financial backing for the non-profit work of the FNCP, a solution to our political situation, to face the challenges of the second decade of the 21st century as a unified people, and freedom for political prisoner Oscar López Rivera.

Alguna lagrimita humedeció mis mejillas al escuchar, ya en la sala de recitales de la Fundación y con los Tres Reyes sentados en el lateral izquierdo del escenario, los aguinaldos “La luz de los Reyes”, “El cofre”, “Si me ven con flores” y otros de estilos cultivados en las promesas que, desde el anonimato y como un legado hermoso e inigualable de la religiosidad popular borincana que dejan a sus hijos en un relevo perpetuo de nuestra cultura, idiosincrasia e identidad, aún nuestros jíbaros cantores entonan en los campos de Peñuelas, Guayanilla, Yauco, San Germán y Maricao.

A tiny tear dampened my cheeks at the sound of “The Light of the Kings”, “The Trunk”, “If You Bring Me Flowers” and other pieces, all bearing the promise that, as an anonymous, beautiful and incomparable legacy of popular Puerto Rican piety left for our children, as an eternal flame for our culture, our quirks and our identity, our jíbaros singers will still sound in the countryside of Peñuelas, Guayanilla, Yauco, San Germán and Maricao.

Another place which now celebrates the Promesa de Reyes is the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe (Center for Advanced Studies on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean), the headquarters of one of the busiest Promesas. Jaime Torres Torres comments on the latest Promesa celebrated there January 5.

Antes a la promesa asistían alrededor de 60 personas, pero desde que se celebra en el Centro llegan hasta 400 y 500 parroquianos, portando sus tallas de Reyes y, sobre todo, corazones sensibles a la espiritualidad de esta popular tradición.

Before the Promesa around 60 people used to attend the centre, but since the celebrations began it attracts up to 400 or 500 parishioners, bearing their figurines of the Kings and, above all, opening their hearts to the spirituality of this popular tradition.

Otro de los lugares en donde se han instituido Promesas de Reyes es en el Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe, en donde cada año cientos de personas asisten a la tradicional Promesa comenzada hace 30 años por la ya fallecida folclorista Norma Salazar, continuada ahora por su hermana, Monina Salazar.

Every year hundreds of people attend the traditional Promesa which was initiated by the late Norma Salazar ,30 years ago. Her sister Monina Salazar has kept the tradition going. Image taken by Gildo Jesús Peña García. Used with permission.

If you find yourself in Puerto Rico at some point during the Christmas season, try and check out a Promesa de Reyes celebration. Regardless of your religious belief, it is a rare opportunity to experience one of the oldest popular Puerto Rican traditions and submerge yourself in the music and culture of the country. It is a festivity that not many tourists get to witness and will be a memory you cherish for the rest of your life.

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