- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2001

NEW YORK For children in many parts of Latin America, Jan. 6 is Christmas Part II a day when the three wise men of the Bible sneak into children's bedrooms to leave toys for the good and coal for the bad.

Many Hispanic communities in the United States will hold Three Kings Day parades this weekend. In New York, where a quarter of the population is Hispanic, the three travelers even get an audience with the mayor.

But the tradition is fading among Hispanic immigrants and their children in this country, as Santa Claus and his reindeer overshadow the kings and their camels.

"These families find themselves in two worlds," said Jose Olmos, a Puerto Rican-born teacher who dons a red cape and feathered turban to play King Balthasar for children in East Harlem.

"Most parents are really overwhelmed by the Santa Claus celebration, so they give their children their gifts early and try to fit into their new country."

The story of the biblical wise men has evolved over the centuries, with them becoming kings named Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. Roman Catholic tradition says their remains, once enshrined in Constantinople and Milan, Italy, are now in the cathedral of Cologne, Germany.

On the night before Epiphany Jan. 6 children from Argentina to Venezuela set out grass and water for the travelers' camels. The kings leave gifts in return.

"But it's hard to find grass in New York in December," said Mr. Olmos. "And nobody gives you a day off work or school up here, so Three Kings Day is just another school day."

The kings' slipping fortunes have been lamented by New York's El Diario newspaper and have even spawned a Santa Claus hate site on the Internet dubbed "Papa Noel, Impostor!" where Three Kings supporters grumble about "cultural colonialism" and speculate on why Santa and Satan are spelled with the same letters.

Even in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, known for vigorously defending its culture, the Three Kings who greet children at shopping malls now share space with Santa Clauses.

Last year, Puerto Rico sent a delegation of kings to Cuba to re-establish the tradition after Fidel Castro lifted a ban on Christmas celebrations. They arrived to find businesses already decorated with pictures of the jolly old man.

"Santa had gotten there before us," said Francisco Colon, secretary for the group.

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