A small town in a southern Philippine province claims to have the most number of “kingdoms” that celebrate the annual “Feast of the Three Kings.”
More than a hundred groups in the town of Vinzons, Camarines Norte province, transform into “kingdoms” to mark the end of the Christmas holidays.
Each of the “kingdoms” is ruled by three “kings,” and in some places, “three queens.”
“It has become a yearly event,” said Romeo Panotes, a village leader and one of the masters of ceremonies during this year’s celebration.
“We do it not just to celebrate the Feast of the Three Kings but also to serve as a reunion for our high school class,” said Panotes.
Panotes’ “kingdom” was established 22 years ago by his high school class.
Every year, the class chooses three men to portray as “kings” who will take charge of the preparations for the celebrations, including paying for the costumes and the food.
The largest and oldest “kingdom” in town is supposedly that of the Huli White Celebration group, which was started by three friends in 1951.
The story goes that while they were having drinks to celebrate the feast one of the three stole a white chicken, thus the “huli,” or catch, “white celebration.”
They declared themselves Kings Gaspar, Melchor, and Baltazar, supposedly the “three wise men” who followed the star to find the baby Jesus in a manger.
From then on, the three celebrated the feast with much fanfare and costumes, and through the years recruited others to inherit the “throne.”
Chona Rigodon, 46, said the celebration became the main event in town during the Feast of the Three Kings, or Epiphany, every Jan. 6.
Epiphany is celebrated 12 days after Christmas on the sixth of January and is the time when Christians remember the Wise Men, also called the Three Kings, who supposedly visited Jesus.
The day is celebrated by Catholics and Orthodox Christians and is a big and important festival in Spain, where it is also known as the Festival of the Three Kings.
Rigodon said the celebration has also become a reason for many natives of Vinzons town, who have left the place, to go back home to celebrate.
Much popular than the town’s annual feast, the celebration of the Feast of the Three Kings has since become a grand party with a lot of food, drinks, and even a band to entertain people.
The celebration spread to other villages and has been replicated by 160 other “kingdoms.”
Father Augusto Jesus Angeles III, parish priest of St. Peter the Apostle parish, said the annual celebration is a “social gathering” rather than a religious activity.
“It is a grand celebration, literally and figuratively. A feast that mirrors the trait of the people of Vinzons when it comes to social gatherings,” he said.
The priest explained that the “Three Kings” tradition “has no direct connection with the Catholic celebration of the Feast of the Three Kings.”
He admitted, however, that the Church “cannot discredit [the celebration] if people consider it … an expression of faith.”
“This town has a lot of practices that we consider popular religiosity, which the Church supports, but the Three Kings celebration is not a church-led activity,” said Father Angeles.
Jeric Galleta, a high school teacher, said some groups are trying to hold activities that portray what the Church teaches about the celebration.
The “kings” usually go around villages to distribute gifts to children. “I look at this unique tradition in our town as part of our Catholic practice,” said Galleta.
“People who started this did not intend to make it a religious activity, but it is now influenced by our faith, which is deeply embedded in our customs,” he said.
Philippine church leaders have acknowledged the various ways Filipinos observe the feast but have also called on the faithful to remember its “real message.”
Bishop Prudencio Andaya of Tabuk said the “Feast of the Three Kings … primarily reminds us of the proclamation of Christ to the world.”
“The wise men came from distant lands to offer their gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. The symbols used to highlight Jesus’ identity as the awaited Messiah,” he said.
The prelate said the feast is “a call for all peoples from every race and nation to follow the light of peace … that brings hope and strength for all of us who have to brave the challenges of life.”
Bishop Roberto Mallari of San Jose said the star plays an important role in the feast and “a great sign that was seen by the three wise men that enabled them to see the newly born king.”
“The sign is meant to shine until today for all to find their way to Jesus,” said the bishop.
Father Angeles said the celebration in Vinsons town is a challenge for church people how to bring to the people the message of the narrative of the three wise men.