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“I remember one time waking up and I swore I saw something walking out of my room. I swore I saw the tail of the camel,” said Maldonado, now 49 and a Cook County commissioner. “Years later, I learned it was the tail of the dog. I was only 6 years old.”

In the United States, most Christmas celebrations are by now only a pleasant memory. But in other cultures, the holiday often stretches much longer, extending through the 12 days of Christmas to the feast day of the Three Kings.

On Saturday, many will honor the three wise men depicted in religious songs and art as bringing offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus, born in a manger in Bethlehem.

In Germany, children dress up as the three wise men on Jan. 6, wearing green, red and blue robes. Making a procession through the villages and cities, the children stop at homes and write on the doors the initials “C. M. B.” and the year. two years ago.

Families give the children a donation that churches send to charities in the Third World. The children also may be invited in for cookies and a hot drink.

In Latin America, the Three Kings feast day arrived with the Spanish, said Rev. Gary Riebe Estrella, vice president and academic dean at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

“In many Latin American countries, that is the true holiday,” he said.

Maldonado holds close his childhood memories, and last year he started a toy drive on Three Kings Day for sick children in Cook County Hospital. He also plans to participate in celebrations in the Puerto Rican neighborhood along Chicago’s Division Street.

These days, commercialization and American influences have made Christmas an equally important holiday in Puerto Rico, Maldonado said.

“Now kids get presents twice. That’s the good thing about Puerto Rico,” he said.

In Spain, the Three Kings, not Santa Claus, bring gifts to children, said Paz D. Troya, a librarian at the Instituto Cervantes in Chicago.

Before the children go to bed, they leave out a clean pair of shoes, three drinks for the kings and water for the camels. They also make a Three Kings cake, with a tiny figurine or coin hidden inside. Whoever gets the treat receives good luck, she said.

All of these varied traditions extend the holiday season.

“Here Christmastime is so much shorter than it is in Spain,” said Troya, 45, who moved to Chicago from Malaga, Spain, a year ago.

Despite the colorful interpretations popularly accepted around the world, the biblical account of the wise men is much simpler. Their names, homeland, time of appearance and the gifts they brought are the subject of scholarly debate and religious interpretation.

“All the Gospel of Matthew says is that there were wise men, or Magi, who came from the East, not how many,” said Mark Noll, a history professor at Wheaton College.

Ultimately, scholars said, the significance of the visitors is that they were the first non Jews to worship Christ.

Scholars note that in the Bible, the wise men are said to have visited the child in a house, not a manger.

“They followed the so called star [of Bethlehem]. That’s why it took them so long,” said Juris Zarins, an anthropology professor at Southwest Missouri State University. “They certainly didn’t arrive at the manger scene.”

The experts say the wise men could have been from Persia, areas controlled by Persia or eastern Yemen. But were they kings or something else, like shamans? In the New Testament, they are called magoi.

“It’s sort of a generic term that could cover all of these things astrologers, wise people, mystics,” said Rev. Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union.

Zarins, an expert in the frankincense trades, said the wise men’s gifts of exotic incense the myrrh and frankincense were products grown at the time in southern Arabia or northern Somalia. He said it was unlikely they brought gold, as cited in the Bible.

“In reality, it was golden frankincense,” Zarins said.

Their names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar are first mentioned in 6th Century writings, and by the Middle Ages they were venerated as saints, according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.
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