WARNER ROBINS — The Three Wise Men made a stop Saturday night in Warner Robins to deliver gifts to a group of children at the community center at Huntington Village.
Close to 40 people, mostly Puerto Ricans, gathered there for food, gifts, cake and dancing to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, as it commonly referred.
The holiday, celebrated Jan. 6, commemorates the biblical story of a visit by three wise men to see Jesus shortly after his birth, bringing with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In Puerto Rico and Latin American countries, children believe that the wise men, rather than Santa Claus, bring them gifts.
“It’s our Santa Claus. In Latin America, we don’t have Santa Claus. That’s an American custom,” said Air Force Sgt. Anthony Velazquez, 34. “A lot of people in Puerto Rico don’t believe in Santa Claus. They believe in the Three Kings.”
Instead of milk and cookies for Santa, children in Puerto Rico traditionally leave grass and water for the Three Kings’ camels.
“It’s interesting,” said 9-year-old Iris Quiñones. “Sometimes, they leave a trail of grass all over the rooms.”
Velazquez said a number of Puerto Ricans, including himself, have moved to the area because of working at Robins Air Force Base. Leaving the island in May 1999, Velazquez and his family have continued to keep the holiday alive wherever he has been stationed, whether in California, Italy or Warner Robins.
“No matter where we’ve gone, we’ve kept our traditions,” he said.
After dinner, which included arroz con gandules — a Puerto Rican rice dish — ham and bread, the children gathered to hear the story of the Three Kings, read by Lisandra Vega. Vega, 27, who moved from Warner Robins a year ago with her family, came all the way from New Jersey to participate in the festivities.
“I came just for the party,” she said with a laugh.
“We share the tradition, because we don’t want our kids to lose their Latin traditions.”
Later, the Three Wise Men — Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior — came out and distributed gifts to the children. Some left with dolls, another received a K’Nex set, and one girl got a Barbie guitar. Once they received their gifts, the children went outside, made a wish and each let go of a white balloon.
For many parents, celebrating the holiday is a method of passing along their heritage.
“I hope down the road, years from now, the tradition can continue. We keep on celebrating and (sharing) that with the kids,” said Victor Lopez.
Some of the children spoke enthusiastically about the holiday. Many liked celebrating the holiday as an occasion to receive gifts. However, some brought up other positive aspects of Three Kings Day.
“We spend more time with our families,” said Tiffany Fernandez, 9, who lived in Puerto Rico until she was about 6 or 7 years old.
“I feel merry all the time,” she said. “I’m happy. It’s awesome.”
Velazquez’s son, Anthony, 12, said he tells his friends about the holiday’s significance when they ask.
“They say we’re lucky,” he said.
The Three Kings Day celebration was part of a larger effort to unite the Puerto Rican community, as well as Latinos in general, in the midstate.
“When I first got here three years ago, I was looking for a place to go, looking for something to get the community together,” Velazquez said.
At first, a few families had get-togethers in their homes, where they would eat traditional Puerto Rican food or play dominoes.
Eventually, more and more people started attending, and those get-togethers had to move to bigger venues.
More recently, some of those families had Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve celebrations.
“I’m trying to do more for the community and for our kids,” Velazquez said.
To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.