Puerto Rican Hurricane Evacuees Adapt Three Kings Day Celebrations To New England Winter

Jan 8, 2018

Xiomara Vega moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico with her three-year-old daughter after Hurricane Maria knocked out the electricity in her home. She’s trying to make a new life there, but she doesn’t want to forget her old one. And celebrating Three Kings Day -- the Christian holiday also known as the Epiphany -- is a big part of that.

“Since she was a baby, it’s a tradition for her,” said Vega’s mom, Lourdes Rodriguez, translating for her. “So every year, she knows they should be coming -- like after Santa Claus. She wants to keep that tradition for her, even though she’s out here. She doesn’t want her to lose that feeling from Puerto Rico.”

Part of that tradition is for children to cut grass or hay to put in a box under their beds for the three kings’ camels to eat the night before the holiday. In the morning, they’ll wake up to presents. It’s a celebration of the Bible story of the three kings who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. And in Puerto Rico, it’s a more important tradition than Santa Claus. Plus, it’s warm there.

In Hartford, where temperatures Saturday dipped below zero with the wind chill, this day was different. It was so cold that the annual parade was canceled -- camels apparently can’t take below zero temperatures. And the grass? It’s covered in snow.

“There’s no grass to cut,” Rodriguez said. “It’s cold. And the kids are not used to the cold on Three Kings Day.”

But inside a city recreation center, a 20-year tradition of giving out donated gifts to local children continued. Dozens of families lined up to receive unwrapped presents stored in black trash bags so they’d stay a surprise for the kids.

Bags full of toys line the floor of a Hartford recreation center, where families congregate each year to receive presents for their kids on Three Kings Day.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

Joel Cruz helped organize the event. He said more people than usual registered to receive gifts -- and he thinks that’s because of the new families who moved to the Hartford area post-Maria.

“You know they come to the U.S. and we don’t mind celebrating and having Santa Claus, but we don’t want to lose the tradition that we have,” he said. “ Really, January 6 is a day that we truly celebrate as a day to give.”

Later in the day, there was a smaller gathering at a hurricane relief center across town, this one specifically for families who relocated after the storm.

Cruz Cruz was there with his fiance, whose grandchildren moved to Connecticut with their mom from the island after the hurricane.

“This is the first time they were in the United States,” he said. “And they didn’t know anything about the snow -- and they have some concern about how the three kings are gonna get here. And we had to explain. But they’re having a good time.”

Cruz said they celebrated the holiday with the kids to make them feel like they were back in a familiar place. And they had to do a bit of improvising. Remember the grass they weren’t able cut and put under the beds? No problem. Cruz said they used lettuce instead.