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HOLIDAY SWEETS

The Bread of the Magi

December 22, 1996|JUANA VaZQUEZ-GoMEZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Parties, parties and more parties. That's my memory of Mexico during the prolonged Christmas season that stretches from Dec. 12, the first day of Posada, to Jan. 6, which marks the arrival of the three wise men.

Mexico is known for its celebrations. There are happy moments that call for parties: a baptism or a first communion, a birthday, a family's success or a wedding. There are commemorations of religious apparitions and historical tragedies. There are pre-Latino holidays, noting fire, wind, lightning, thunder, all the natural phenomena that the gods provided, that need to be celebrated passionately as a sign of agradecimiento (gratitude). Even the days that are meant for mourning--burials and the Day of the Dead--are reasons for celebration.

December is, of course, an especially festive month, with nine days of Posada parties, Christmas dinner and New Years Eve. But it's not enough for the Mexican people.

Along comes Jan. 6, and with it comes another party. It is the day of Epiphany, commemorating the arrival in Bethlehem of the three wise men with their gifts. In Mexico, this day is mostly another splendid pretext for a grand feast for family members and loved ones.

Before Santa Claus became widely accepted in Mexico during the 1950s, there were three wise men who brought gifts to the children on Jan. 6. In many towns, mostly those far from the influence of the capital, the people still recognize and celebrate this day. It is not, of course, as holy as the day that Christ was born, but it is a day to rejoice in a country with a lot of tradition and history.

I remember January as the month when the merchants overstocked their stores with traditional Mexican colors and the knickknacks that "the kings" used to bring: baleros (cup-and-ball), spinning tops, perinolas (teetotum--a four-sided top with a letter on each face) and balloons. For the boys, there were little wooden cars and planes painted in brilliant colors. For the girls, there were dolls made of cloth, shining paper rehiletes and papalotes made with China paper. There were boxer and contortionist dolls that moved, tin soldiers and the lottery card game.

As if these things were not enough, merchants also used to bring out the most spectacular varieties of fruits, vegetables and the Christmas candy known as Collation.

Residents of large cities of Mexico no longer enjoy this tradition with the same feeling as people in small towns. Inhabitants of large cities have opted for the plastic toys found in shopping malls and supermarkets.

Although my sister, brother and I would always leave a shoe under the Christmas tree on Jan. 5 (in which, miraculously, Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar always managed to put a small present on Jan. 6), my family did not emphasize the giving of gifts. Instead, Epiphany was a day to gather the family for the traditional cutting of the rosca de reyes, a ring made of sweet pastry. Its circular shape symbolizes the sky, perfection and eternity. Later that night, we would celebrate at the dear Cafe de Tacuba.

I remember my grandmother and my two aunts, Esther and Concepcion, taking us to this beautiful old restaurant in downtown Mexico City. I remember the restaurant's vaulted ceilings, the walls decorated with tile from Talavera, in the state of Puebla, the same place that supplied the china on the table. There were also magnificent chairs handmade from wicker, each with a different woven pattern. The telephone booth was built of wood and must have been at least 100 years old. The murals depicting the history of mole sauce were painted by a famous muralist, Carlos Gonzalez. There were also pictures of some of Mexico's leaders and poets, like 17th century poetess Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.

Almost as if in a dream, I see the adults forever chatting after ordering the dinner. I also see the children going from one table to another playing games. The traditional meals took a long time to make at this restaurant; there was a sign at the entrance that explained that because every dish was prepared in the old-fashioned way, customers should expect a minimum 20- to 30-minute wait.

Even today, Cafe de Tacuba's popularity has not hampered its pledge to tradition. The recipes are orally transmitted from one generation to the next within the family.

Cafe de Tacuba was and is still a great place for the adults to catch up on all the old times and for the kids to run around to all the other tables and meet all the other kids. It was also the gathering place of Mexico's artists, politicians and intellectuals. It was there that Diego Rivera and Lupe Marin's wedding was celebrated.

If you cannot make it to the Cafe de Tacuba this January, it is easy to make your own rosca de reyes.

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