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While The Three Kings (Los Santos Reyes) are honored all over Mexico during Christmastide and into the New Year, some regional festivities are better known than others.

Among the oldest of the traditional Epiphany festivals is that celebrated on the shores of Lake Cajititlan (cah-he-TEET-lahn), a still secluded spot located between populous Guadalajara and scenic Lake Chapala in the state of Jalisco.

Described in detail by a visiting Franciscan friar as early as the 1580's, and undoubtedly the successor to an even more ancient ceremony, the popular fiesta of the Three Kings takes place in the lakeside town of Los Reyes Cajititlan.

A year or so ago we attended the celebration, which still commands a wide regional following, and were impressed by its enduring religious character. The festivities, which come to a climax on January 6th, included masked Nativity plays and indigenous dances performed in the vast atrium, as well as the inevitable fireworks. Bustling market stalls surround the church precincts, where traditional seasonal specialties such as almond tequila and roscas ­ sweet breads decorated red and green ­ are consumed.

Continuous processions of the faithful wind through the imposing baroque church throughout the day, chanting paeons of praise to the Three Kings, whose centuries-old images are lowered from the main altarpiece and mounted in the nave for the occasion. A venerable stone statue of Gaspar, one of the Magi, still surveys the celebrations from his niche high on the church facade.

According to local lore, the carved eagles on the frieze beside the altarpiece, with their inset obsidian eyes ­ an ancient pre-hispanic practice ­ may represent Atlquiahuitl, the mythical water deity of this magical lakeside region.

Text and illustrations ©1998 by Richard D. Perry