When George Cruz-Martinez, pastor of Iglesia Evangelica Luterana Cristo Rey, an ELCA congregation in Orlando, Fla., asked the members of Cristo Rey how they wanted to celebrate Epiphany, the day the church celebrates the revelation of Jesus Christ to all nations as represented by magi who visit the infant Jesus, “Unanimously they said, ‘Do it the Puerto Rican style. It will be happier.’”
Though Cristo Rey is made up of people from a number of Spanish-speaking countries across the Caribbean, Latin America and South America, George says, still the Puerto Rican influence is strong.
“Puerto Ricans have developed a very joyful celebration” surrounding Epiphany, he says. “Christmas in Puerto Rico begins on the day after Thanksgiving, and it’s celebrated straight through Epiphany.”
In the Puerto Rican tradition, Epiphany is also known as “El Dia de Los Reyes” or Three Kings Day.
George explains, “We use what we call the Campesina Jibaro liturgy” — a Lutheran liturgy done to Puerto Rican music. The service also “involves a lot of Caribbean instruments” like the “guiro” — a hollow gourd with grooves on the side that produce a scratchy, washboard-like sound when the “palitos,” or sticks, are run across them.
They also use the guitar and maracas to play “traditional Lutheran songs with Caribbean rhythm and flavor,” George says. “It sounds outstanding.”
Also in keeping with El Dia de Los Reyes tradition, many members of Cristo Rey give gifts on Epiphany rather than Christmas.
“We’re bi-cultural in a sense. Some people do give gifts for both,” George shares. But “the tradition has been that gift-giving is done on Three Kings Day. The tradition is that kids put shoeboxes under their beds with a little hay (the hay was for the wise men’s camels), and a small gift was left in the box.”
At the Epiphany service this year, children will receive a small goodie bag filled with coloring books, crayons and candies. The service will be open to the community, so that all children may come and receive a gift.
“Through the entire island of Puerto Rico and a lot of Puerto Ricans in [the U.S.], it’s very special,” George says of the holiday. “It’s meaningful for a lot of people. It also takes the pressure off the Christmas atmosphere that we’ve created in the United States that really robs the season of its meaning.”