Alysa Montijo’s three young children wrapped their arms around the donkey’s neck and gave it a big collective hug at the Three Kings Day celebration on Saturday at MKE Urban Stables.
The holiday, which is widely celebrated by Latin American families, is associated with the traditional Christian Epiphany, when the three wise men brought gifts to the Child Jesus.
But at this gathering, it was the Milwaukee Police Department that came up with gifts for children.
The law enforcement community and the Milwaukee branch of the National Latino Law Enforcement Organization hosted 19 families for an afternoon of food, fun and gifts at the Mounted Patrol Horse Stable on East Lincoln Avenue.
Officers invited parents they had met on the beat, families who had been victims of crime, and children recommended by local partners. It was a time for ordinary citizens and police to get to know each other in a positive setting.
The giant Percheron horses and the donkey were also pretty cool.
“This is just amazing,” Montijo said. “There’s such a negativity around the police, so I think this is really, really good. And it’s great that the kids can interact with the animals.”
Attendance was intentionally reduced slightly at the seventh annual event due to COVID concerns.
But the kids certainly did not go home empty-handed. Knights of Columbus donated winter coats. St. Hyacinth Catholic Church donated more than 50 bins with brand new toys. Local businesses, restaurants and nonprofits also came up with gifts.
“We reach out to families who have struggled financially or they have been affected by a number of things that were not in their control,” said Community Liason Officer Elilel Contrares.
The celebration in the stables was a time to put COVID, crime and negative thoughts aside.
“It gives us a chance to engage with the families, to get to know them and for them to see us in a different light,” Contrares said. “They’re going to meet officers in a better environment … there’s no pressure and we have a chance to hand out presents.”
Three Kings Day, usually celebrated on January 6, is filled with customs such as leaving grass or hay for the three wise men in exchange for a gift. The prepared patrol horses and the donkey would definitely have wanted that.
The event is particularly resonant on the south side of Milwaukee, home to the city’s largest concentration of Latin American and Latin residents. Some families do not consider the Christmas holidays over until the arrival of the three wise men is celebrated.
In Mexico, the holiday is marked with a Rosca de Reyes, a large oval bread with dried fruits. There was plenty of it at Saturday’s event along with Domino’s pizza.
Often the bread has a Jesus figure inside. Each person cuts their own piece, and the one who gets the baby Jesus is to host the next feast.
“But we do not,” said Contrares, explaining the custom and quantity of food and gifts.
“This is where the magic happens,” he said.