For kids on Three Kings Day, the presents rule

Monaris Rivera, 26, of New London, portraying the Virgin Mary, receives assistance with her costume from her mother, Monse Rivera of New London.
Monaris Rivera, 26, of New London, portraying the Virgin Mary, receives assistance with her costume from her mother, Monse Rivera of New London. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

New London - It's called El Día de los Reyes in Spanish and Three Kings Day in English, but for children of Hispanic descent it's the day to open presents.

"It's like Santa," said Emmy Johnson of New London, a volunteer at Centro de la Comunidad, the Hispanic nonprofit social service agency on Blinman Street, which has been celebrating Three Kings Day for decades now.

Back in Puerto Rico, said Centro receptionist Yamaira Badillo, all the children go out looking for grass on the day before Three Kings Day. Grass is for the camels of the three kings - also known as Wise Men - who visited Jesus a few days after his birth (Jan. 6 on the calendar) to declare him "King of the Jews."

The grass is left in a box, or under a bed or below a tree, and in the morning a present (sometimes several presents) appear magically. In America, grass is sometimes hard to come by under the snows of winter, so milk, cookies and other goodies are often substituted.

"Here, we can't do it," Badillo, a New London resident, said Sunday of the grass tradition.

At Centro, the tradition takes on a slightly different form every year.

Joan Donohue of Norwich, a member of the Centro board of directors, said this year involved face painting, food, music and the giveaway of more than 80 wrapped presents, donated by individuals as well as companies such as Electric Boat.

Kids sign up for presents in advance, but they don't expect any particular favorite.

"They get what they get," Donohue said.

Sometimes, the Three Kings Day story is acted out, but this year the eight garbed characters - Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, two angels and baby Jesus - simply stood at the front of the room as children's names were read and the colorfully dressed kids up to age 13 scampered up to collect their presents.

Many of the children belonged to clients of Centro, which provides social and educational services including General Educational Development classes and English as a Second Language instruction.

The idea, said Donohue, has been for the community center to help maintain important Hispanic traditions that emphasize common culture.

The tradition has been going on so long at Centro that many of the original kids are parents or even grandparents. Teenagers often come to support their younger siblings and revel in the community spirit, Donohue said.

"It's all about celebrating with family," said Badillo.

l.howard@theday.com

Samantha Musella, 8, of Montville, receives costume assistance from her mother Sonyia Musella, left, and Emmy Johnson of New London prior to the beginning of the annual Three Kings Day celebration Sunday at Centro de la Comunidad in New London. Samantha is playing an angel.
Samantha Musella, 8, of Montville, receives costume assistance from her mother Sonyia Musella, left, and Emmy Johnson of New London prior to the beginning of the annual Three Kings Day celebration Sunday at Centro de la Comunidad in New London. Samantha is playing an angel. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo
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