This past Saturday, a float which held the Three Kings, the Virgin Mary, José, and a parade princess, drove up and down Grand St and Graham Ave in Williamsburg, handing out presents to any child that approached it.
The float was organized by the Three Kings Parade and celebrated a traditional Catholic holiday that follows Christmas. This year, the 24th annual Three Kings Day parade differed from previous years, thanks to the pandemic. Instead of large floats, folk dancers in the streets, and musicians celebrating the traditional Three Kings Day, the celebration consisted of only one float. However, it was still much appreciated, following a year that was spent primarily at home, and one where money was tight for many families.
Alejandro Zayas, the Public Relations Director of the Three Kings Day parade, was not sure it would be held at all this year, but felt it was important to keep the traditional celebration alive.
The Three Kings Parade is a celebration of the Epiphany, the day the Three Kings, or Three Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, reached Bethlehem, after a 12-day journey guided by a star, to where baby Jesus lay. The Kings, who arrived by camel, brought gold, frankincense, myrrh, and annotated oil to Jesus.
“In a time when people can not get together to celebrate, “look out your window, we’re here,” said Zayas of the celebration that is popular and widely observed in the predominantly Catholic countries of Latin America and Spain. And the community of Williamsburg celebrated. People screamed from their buildings, held out flags, happy to hear the celebration live on.
Sylvia T. Miranda, President of The Cervantes Society, who worked with the parade organizers to collect toys to distribute to children said she felt a sense of pride in her culture.
“The tradition has been kept alive,” said Betty Lugo, an attorney who helped the parade come together, partially because of education and outreach.
“Letting people know why we celebrate Three Kings. I think if people know that they’re more willing to participate. If people know why you’re having this festival and you’re partying on the road, let them know what it’s about.”
The celebration comes at a time when the community of Williamsburg is rapidly changing. While Williamsburg’s ties to its Latinx culture are memorialized in say the Avenue of the Puerto Ricans, since 2000, the Latinx population has significantly decreased.
In 2000, the Latinx population was 57%, in 2010, it was just under 38%, and in 2019, it was only 25%. Meanwhile, the white population of Williamsburg has increased. As of 2019, 61% of Williamsburg’s population was white.
“Lately, our neighborhood has changed tremendously,” said Zayas. “We must keep the tradition. Even because of COVID, we know we could do something small, impactful. People can see we actually want to keep the tradition.”
“People get excited every year. They don’t have to be Latinos.” For Zayas, the celebration is about community. It brings people together and brings joy to all children.
As the float came to a stop, it parked next to Action in Christ International Church. From there, Zayas, along with other volunteers, handed out roughly 1,000 presents to about as many kids. In the time of COVID, said Zayas, some families cannot afford to give their children gifts.
“It’s beautiful to see,” said Zayas. “Our kids were smiling.”
The Three Kings Day parade allows families to receive presents that they might not have afforded otherwise, said Lugo. It also provides parents and their children a way to get out of their homes and engage in a celebration of their culture.
“We’ve been isolating ourselves a lot,” said Kathrine Vera, who attended the celebration with her daughter.
“It’s nice to just get out and get some fresh air, teach everybody about the Three Kings.”
For children, the parade is a way to escape their virtual classroom,” said Lugo.
“This gives them an opportunity to want to get a gift, to learn about a tradition. It gives the parents a little bit of a break. Some people who don’t have, they have at least they got a gift.”
Despite COVID-19, said Zayas, the most important part of this year’s celebration was letting the community know that the Three Kings Day parade supports them. “We’re still standing. We’ve lost a lot of people in this community. We lose our family members. People in our community are down.”
For Zayas, the biggest takeaway from this parade was that “we must appreciate everything.”
“Though we didn’t have a large parade, we had a float, and we had smiles.”