Growing up in a Mexican American family, the Christmas season holds a special place in my heart. It is a time when my family and I embark on a journey to Mexico City to reunite with our loved ones and reconnect with our culture. Through the years, our family matriarchs have passed down traditions and imparted the importance of our Mexican customs to us, the new generations.

Rosca de Reyes Tradition

One of the cherished holiday baking traditions in our family is the Rosca de Reyes, also known as the “Wreath of the Kings.” This traditional sweet bread is eaten every January 6th to celebrate Día de Los Reyes, also known as Three Kings Day or Epiphany, which is celebrated in the Christian world.

According to the Bible, the story of the Three Wise Men unfolds as they travel from the East to Jerusalem in search of the newborn king. King Herod instructs the Magi to inform him of the baby’s whereabouts so that he can also worship the newborn king. However, Herod secretly plans to kill the baby, fearing the rise of a new ruler. Guided by a star, the Wise Men continue their journey to Bethlehem where they find baby Jesus and present him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

As a child, I remember writing letters to the Magi in hopes of receiving gifts. On January 5th, my cousins and I would tuck our letters in our shoes and place them under the Christmas tree. The next morning, we would eagerly rush downstairs and be amazed to find presents near our shoes. In Mexico, the Three Wise Men hold great significance for Christians, and instead of lining up to take pictures with Santa Claus like children in the United States, my cousins and I would line up to take photos with the Magi.

Making Rosca de Reyes

For many years, I was unable to visit my family in Mexico and missed out on the experience of enjoying fresh roscas from local bakeries. However, this year was different. I was finally able to visit my family, and I longed to savor every moment of the sweet taste of the rosca and the joy of being with my loved ones. Determined to make this year’s celebration special, I asked my aunt, Tía Laura, if we could make a rosca together.

With a gentle smile on her face, Tía Laura began laying out the ingredients for our homemade rosca. She explained the process to my eight-year-old niece, Dani, and me. As someone with limited baking experience, I wondered what I had gotten myself into, but I was eager to learn and create something meaningful with my family.

Tía Laura introduced us to the concept of the “basa madre” or “base mother.” She explained that the combination of several ingredients would cause the dough to rise and double in size, and this mixture was called the base mother because it resembled how a mother gives birth to a child. From this dough, the rosca would come to life.

Tía Laura instructed Dani and me to knead the dough until it became smooth. While my aunt effortlessly kneaded a perfect ball, my portion turned into a sticky mess. I looked at Dani, and her dough was beginning to resemble my aunt’s. Frustrated, I chuckled as my dough crumbled into crumbs.

My aunt, realizing the generational difference between us, laughed and said, “Knead the dough as if you were washing clothes by hand.” I had never washed clothes in that way, and it was a humorous moment of realization. Tía Laura took what was left of my dough and magically turned it into a smooth ball. I was amazed at her skill and patience in instructing us, her eager students.

After the dough had risen, we shaped it into an oval to symbolize a crown, representing the infinite and eternal love God has for us. We then adorned the dough with various toppings. While traditionally candied fruits are used, representing the jewels of the Magi’s crowns, Tía Laura assured us that we could decorate the rosca with whatever toppings we preferred.

The most significant and symbolic step was placing tiny baby Jesus figures within the dough. In the biblical story, the Magi are warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, who seeks to harm the baby Jesus. The Holy Family had already fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution. Therefore, the baby Jesus dolls must be discreetly concealed within the dough to represent the time when Jesus was hidden from Herod’s wrath.

As Tía Laura handed us the plastic figurines, Dani’s face lit up with excitement. She carefully placed the dolls throughout the rosca, and I marveled at the fact that I now knew where they were hidden. However, as we lost track of the number of dolls we placed, neither of us knew where the dolls were truly concealed.

My aunt made the sign of the cross over the rosca and placed it in the oven just as our family began to gather in the house. Grandmothers, uncles, cousins, and everyone in between weaved around the living room, eagerly welcoming each other. Amidst the chaos, I found my way back to the kitchen through a sea of aunts, and my eyes were fixated on the oven, eagerly awaiting my first homemade Rosca de Reyes.

Tía Laura carried the baked rosca into the living room, and the bustling energy of so many family members packed into a small space evaporated at the sight of the sweet bread. As they marveled over our creation, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride in my accomplishment.

Family Gathering and Tradition

The traditions surrounding the cutting of the cake were the most entertaining part of the celebration. If you find the baby Jesus in a slice you cut, you are responsible for making tamales and hosting a party on Día de la Candelaria, also known as the Presentation of Jesus Christ, a religious holiday held every February 2nd. Many consider receiving the baby Jesus figurine either bad luck or good luck, depending on how one views the responsibility it entails.

As the moment to cut the rosca arrived, everyone chanted my name, encouraging me to take the first slice. Hesitant and feeling the pressure, I cautiously cut a small slice while my little sister playfully called me a coward. All eyes were on me as my fingers ran through the middle of the slice. To my relief, there was no doll, and everyone cheered.

However, my cousin Tomí and Tía Vero quickly pointed out a pair of little white feet peeking from the edge of the rosca where I had taken a slice. The room stood divided as to whether such a thing counted or not. Hoping to divert attention, I handed the slicer to the next person.

With each turn, family members took a different approach to cutting the rosca. Some daringly cut large slices, hoping to miraculously avoid finding the figurine. Others, like myself, opted for small slices, seeking safety from the playful taunts of the family. My cousin Tomí reluctantly took a slice and, to his dismay, found the hidden doll. His face scrunched up in disappointment as the room erupted with laughter. Tía Vero then took a slice and discovered not one, but two baby Jesus dolls.

“I’ve got twins?” she exclaimed, momentarily confused. Our laughter knew no bounds as we reveled in the joyous moment.

Towards the end of the night, my mother inquired about who had found the dolls. Tía Vero proudly brought out her two dolls, Tomí reluctantly admitted to finding one, and three other family members, including Dani, held up their baby Jesus figurines. Grudgingly, I accepted defeat and removed the figurine from the edge of the rosca. Now, seven family members shared the responsibility of making tamales and hosting the Candelaria party the following month.

No matter how one strategizes their slice, luck finds them in the form of a white plastic doll. Whether it is deemed bad or good luck depends on how one accepts it. In our family, we love to tease each other over the technicalities of the rosca tradition. However, regardless of who finds the figurine, we all eagerly look forward to any opportunity to be together again.

Future Roscas and Conclusion

Tía Laura encouraged us to create our own future roscas, experimenting with different toppings and ingredients that we prefer. She shared the story of Aunt Cecelia, who, not having the plastic dolls, hid gummy bears within the dough. Her reasoning was that bears are one of God’s creatures, and there was no worry in case anyone accidentally swallowed them. Additionally, the colors of the gummy bears added to the symbolic nature of the Wise Men’s jewels.

As I eagerly anticipate the future, I can’t wait to see what new twists and creativity we will bring to our roscas. While I am sure cooking disasters await us, I am excited to continue the tradition of making a rosca for every Día de Los Reyes. My aunt often reiterates that, whether we are making the rosca or serving ourselves a slice, what truly matters is being together with family.

If you decide to partake in this tradition, I encourage you to embrace the jest and cheers of your own family. Whether you dare to cut a large slice or seek the safety of a small one, be ready to face the playful taunts and laughter. And don’t forget to leave a shoe out the night before January 6th, as the Three Wise Men might just leave a gift or three.

Rosca de Reyes (Wreath of the Kings) Recipe


  • For the base madre (base mother):
    • ½ cup warm milk (microwave for 40 seconds)
    • ¾ cup + 1 spoonful sugar
    • ½ kilo (4 cups) + 1 spoonful flour
    • 11 grams (2 ½ teaspoons) instant yeast
    • 3 eggs
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 2 teaspoons vanilla
    • 1 teaspoon butter orange food flavoring
    • 1 ½ sticks butter
    • 1 teaspoon canola oil
    • Plastic wrap
  • For maiza blanca (white dough):
    • 50 grams (½ cup) powdered sugar
    • 50 grams (½ cup) flour
    • 50 grams (¼ cup) vegetable shortening
    • 1 egg yolk
  • For assembly:
    • Vegetable shortening
    • Jesus figurines
  • Toppings:
    • 1 egg
    • La Flor de Morelia Ate Combinado
    • Candied Fruits
    • 6 maraschino cherries
    • 6 pecans
    • Sugar


Make the base mother: In a bowl, whisk together the warm milk, a spoonful of sugar, and a spoonful of flour, along with the yeast until completely smooth, with no bubbles. Set aside to rest for around 30 minutes.

In the meantime, form ½ kilo (4 cups) of flour into the shape of a volcano, leaving the center empty. In a separate bowl, beat 3 eggs with a fork and then pour them into the center of the flour volcano. Next, add ¾ of a cup of sugar, salt, vanilla, and butter orange flavoring to the center of the flour. Once the bowl with yeast has risen, pour it into the center of the flour volcano. Using clean hands, fold over the outskirts of the flour into the center, and begin kneading the dough into a ball shape until everything is combined. Add pinches of flour to your hands and work surface to help grasp the dough. The dough should be soft but not sticky. Add butter to the center of the dough ball and knead it together, adding flour to your hands and surface as necessary. Lightly coat a separate bowl with canola oil to prevent the dough from sticking. Place the ball of dough into the bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and set it aside to let the dough double in size, approximately 2 hours.

Make the white dough: In a bowl, mix powdered sugar, flour, vegetable shortening, and the egg yolk. Knead the mixture into a ball and then cut the dough into 6 equal pieces. Knead each piece into a ball, pat the dough side to side with your palms to flatten it, and shape each piece into a rectangle. Set aside.

Prepare the toppings: Cut each of the candied fruits into 6 long and skinny slices.

Now, to assemble the cake: Coat a 9-by-13” baking tray, at least 1” deep, with vegetable shortening. Once the base mother dough has doubled in size, remove the plastic wrap and place the dough onto your work surface. Roll the dough back and forth with your hands to form a log, and then place it on the baking tray in the shape of an oval. Make a small hole in the center of one end of the dough with your thumb and connect the other end by placing it inside the hole. Randomly submerge the baby Jesus dolls within the dough, ensuring that they are hidden. Place the 6 white dough rectangles on top of the oval dough. Beat 1 egg and brush it on top of the rosca. Decorate with sliced fruits, cherries, and pecans. Sprinkle pinches of sugar over the top.

Set the tray aside to let it rest and preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Once the dough has risen slightly, place the tray into the oven for 30 minutes. When it is ready, a toothpick inserted into the cake should come out clean. Remove the rosca from the oven and set it aside to cool for around 10 minutes. Serve warm and enjoy!

Francesca Galván is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a senior majoring in animation at Arizona State University. She expresses her love and appreciation to her family for sharing this heartwarming tradition with her.