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New London - More than 150 people filled Centro de la Comunidad's Blinman Street home Sunday evening as the city's Hispanic community gathered to celebrate Three Kings Day with songs, a short play for the kids and, of course, presents.
The Christian holiday - which is sometimes referred to as the Epiphany or El Día de los Reyes - commemorates the three kings' arrival at the manger where Jesus Christ was born with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
At Centro, the arrival of the magi was re-enacted in a skit featuring the three kings, two angels and the holy family, all in costume. After the skit, children approached the kings to receive a present.
In many Hispanic cultures, and especially in Puerto Rico, Three Kings Day is at least as widely celebrated as Christmas Day.
"We are from Puerto Rico, so we celebrate Three Kings Day every year," said Marilyn Acevedo, 26, of New London. "The kids loved it, it was amazing."
Acevedo's son, 7-year-old Carlos Delvalle, received a present but decided to wait until he was home to open it. For Carlos, whose face was painted to look like Spider Man, his first Three Kings Day celebration at Centro was a blast.
"It was lots of fun, especially the face painting," he said.
Traditionally, children mark the holiday by filling a crate with grass or hay they gathered to leave as a snack for the kings' camels. In the morning, the grass would either be gone or strewn about - a sure sign the camels and their riders had visited in the night. A small toy or gift would be left in place of the grass, said Centro Executive Director Elizabeth Garcia Gonzalez.
"We're trying to keep that tradition alive," she said.
The toys handed out at Centro's celebration included books, Barbie dolls, Lego sets and stuffed animals larger than some of the children. Most of the gifts were donated by community members and area businesses.
Joan Donoghue, who has been involved with Centro since 1984, said the annual celebration has taken on additional meaning over the last decade or so: teaching children about the traditions of their culture.
"Twenty-five years ago, many of the people were immigrants who had come here from another country so they were more steeped in their own culture from their native countries," Donoghue, Centro's treasurer, said. "But these children growing up here, many of them don't have quite the same ties, so Centro tries to run as many programs as it can to promote the Hispanic culture."
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.
Garcia Gonzalez said the Three Kings Day celebration is one of the largest events Centro organizes on an annual basis. Each year the number of families and children at the event grows, she said.
"It's a packed house," Garcia Gonzalez said. "Next year we might have to find a bigger space."