Big Jim: Three kings and New Year's, too!

2014-01-07T00:00:00Z 2014-09-12T09:22:18Z Big Jim: Three kings and New Year's, too!Jim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Yesterday was January 6, the day of the Three Kings. I’ve already written about the traditional fiesta that some folks hold on this day, complete with a ring cake to cut and responsibilities to assume.

This is also the day in Mexican tradition when kids received gifts — and still do in some families. Straw would be left out for the kings’ horses (and camels, and elephants), and the Santos Reyes would leave presents.

The Gospel of Matthew says little about those three visitors, except that they were wise men from the East — possibly wandering Zoroastrian astrologers. Medieval Catholic tradition decided on their number (to match the three gifts they brought) and gave them names: Caspar, Baltazar, and Melchior. One came from each of the continents of the known world, which is why they are sometimes shown riding an elephant, a camel, and a horse.

But this blog has missed a whole holiday: New Year’s! This day of transition and beginnings is set about with traditional customs, many of which seem to be innocent magical acts designed to make things go well in the coming year. Many of my Southern friends serve and eat black-eyed peas on that day, with or without hog jowls. I’ve been told that the peas represent money, and therefore prosperity in the coming year. My wife’s family hails from the eastern Mediterranean, so we serve lentils, with the same symbolism. My mother-in-law also felt that the first person through the door on New Year’s Day should be a dark-haired man carrying bread and wine.

There are two foods that Mexicanos associate with New Year's: menudo and bunuelos. These latter are rounds of thin, crisp fried dough, and can be eaten plain, with honey, or with miel de caña (cane syrup). Food aside — and I always have trouble putting food aside — there are other things one can do at the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve. According to some friends, If you wear red underwear, you’ll be lucky in love; if yellow underwear, you’ll make money. If you walk around the outside of the house carrying a suitcase, you’ll travel. It is also good to eat one grape at each stroke of midnight.

I’ll close with a popular seasonal greeting and response from the Tucson area:

“Feliz Año Nuevo!”

“Chorizo con huevo!”

Copyright 2015 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About this blog

Jim Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, and co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself. He’s also the author of seven books on the folklore and folklife of our region, most recently “A Border Runs Through It.” His books can be purchased at

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail

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