In 1971, Cuban exiles organized the first Parada de los Reyes Mago, the Three Kings Days Parade in Little Havana. This was a direct response to the Castro regime, which had banned both Christmas and the Epiphany celebrations in Cuba in 1969.
Before Castro outlawed Christmas, the Cuban celebration of the Christmas season was rich in tradition. For Cubans, the celebration of Christmas is not limited to just one day of the year. Instead, Cubans celebrate the entire Christmas story, from the birth of Christ up to and including his visit from the Three Wise Men.
In Cuba, children did not receive gifts on Christmas day by a fat man in a red suit. Instead, “Los Tres Reyes Magos,” or “The Three Magician Kings” brought the gifts on January 6. These are the same Magi described in the accounts of the birth of Christ in the Bible: El Rey Melchior brings gold, El Rey Baltasar brings myrrh, and El Rey Gaspar brings frankincense.
Although some families did have Christmas trees in Cuba (an American import), the tree took a back seat to another Cuban tradition: the beautiful nacimientos (nativity, or manger scenes) that are still an important part of Cuban Christmas holidays. Unlike the tiny manger sets that are typical in American homes, most Cuban manger sets included several different figures, some fairly large, and all made of painted plaster.
There were plenty of lights, and hanging ornaments even lots of lágrimas (literally "tears") or what Americans call tinsel, that we hung from each branch. Cuban Christmas trees looked very much like American ones, complete with the angel on top. However, many people used male angels. Michael the Archangel was a popular choice.
How important are the Three Kings in Cuban Christmas tradition? When setting up the nacimiento, families place the statues of the Three Kings at the edge of the display. Each day the children of the family move the kings closer to the manger as the Three Kings day approaches. On the eve of the big day, Cuban children leave hay or grass and water for the camels of the wise men. Like Santa, the kings slip into the house after dark bearing gifts. If the children have behaved badly during the year, the kings leave a lump of coal in their shoes.
The creation of the Three Kings Day Parade helped bring the holiday back into focus for Cuban exiles in Miami. In the beginning, they held the parade in the area near 12th and Flagler, then the heart of Little Havana, not on Calle Ocho. The parade included numerous Orange Bowl Parade Floats left over from the New Year’s Eve parade.
An assortment of marching bands from both neighborhood public schools and dozens of small Cuban private schools provided the music. Early parades also included members of counter-revolutionary military groups, an integral part of the early exile landscape, marching alongside the clowns and kids.
The Three Kings were the stars of the event, dressed in full regalia complete with crowns, turbans, and flowing robes. The Kings rode along the parade route on live camels, tossing candy and treats to the children.
The Christmas trees and lights and the holy days would last until January 6. Christmas in Cuba was the entire celebration of the birth of Christ up to and including his visit from the Three Wise Men. Of course, every manger scene featured the wise men!