And so, just after 10:30 a.m., the joyous sound of horns, guitars, tambourines, and congas filled St. Anthony's simple tan sanctuary, and as the three kings led the processional up the center aisle, the choir began to sing about the three kings coming from the East to worship the newborn king.
Some in the pews sang, with nearly everyone clapping to the beat.
"Happy Three Kings Day," the Rev. Judd Weiksman, pastor of St. Anthony's, told the standing-room-only crowd when he arrived at the altar.
But few of the 100 or so children could take their eyes off those three robed men with the Bedouin-style headgear standing to his right. Like St. Nicholas in Western European tradition, the kings are the dispensers in Latin America of Christmas presents, and are objects of awe for youngsters.
The niños would have to wait, however, through a 90-minute Mass and an hour-long luncheon before the gift-giving began.
The first reading was from the Book of Isaiah, a harbinger of the kings:
"Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come, bearing gold and frankincense . . . and proclaiming the praises of the Lord."
The reading from Paul was from Ephesians about epiphany, or divine revelation, and the gospel was from Mark, the only evangelist whose Christmas narrative speaks of the magi, or Persian astronomer-priests, who follow a star to the stable where Jesus was born.
"Today we are celebrating the epiphany of the Lord," Friar Juan Turcios said in his homily.
Alternating between Spanish and English, he told his listeners that, like the wise men, they are "called to bring our gifts to the Lord" and "share with one another."
After Mass, most of the crowd made its way down a narrow staircase to the church basement. There, the berobed Torres, a 47-year-old truck driver from Pennsauken, and the other kings milled among them as they queued up for chicken, pork, rice, and bean dishes.
"I've done it a few times before," said 52-year-old Jose Figueroa, an investor from Pennsauken wearing a green robe. Like Torres, he grew up in the parish. "It reminds me of what we used to do here in the past," he said.
It was the first time for his 25-year-old son, also Jose, who was a last-minute replacement for a parishioner who got sick. "I was supposed to be the dark-skinned king," said the younger Figueroa, a Verizon Wireless consultant draped in purple. "But that meant doing makeup and wearing black gloves, and I just wasn't up for it."
Weiksman, a Franciscan priest, said it was the largest Three Kings Day crowd he'd seen in his seven years at St. Anthony's, which is in the city's Cramer Hill section. People of Puerto Rican, Mexican, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan backgrounds make up most of the parish, he said.
He attributed the large turnout in part to his decision to mark nine, instead of three, days of Posadas, a Mexican Advent tradition in which parishioners playing Mary and Joseph knock on doors around the parish seeking shelter.
"But people are also very aware of the 67 homicides" in Camden last year, Weiksman said, briefly choking up. "I think the feeling is this is better than celebrating funerals."
The children were growing impatient, however. "I want to be first in line," said 7-year-old Elian Urena, who kept pressing against the table where the kings were eating.
Shortly after 1 p.m., the kings took their places behind a row of tables at the back of the room, and a crowd of jumping children gathered quickly around them.
"We'll start with the 12- to 14-year-olds," they announced, peering uncertainly into the cardboard boxes crammed with plastic bags and felt stockings.
"Which ones are the boys'?" the elder Figueroa murmured to his fellow wise men as they peered into the stockings. "Does it matter, green or red?" wondered Torres, holding up one of each.
It did not, and soon the 3- to 5-year-olds were coursing through the line, gazing in wonder as the kings handed them bags and boxes bearing such names as Lego and Lincoln Logs and Playskool and Play-doh. Most children received three gifts, with most girls getting dolls and boys getting cars or trucks.
Many of the 8- to 12-year-olds got soccer balls, basketballs, or remote-controlled toy cars. "This is pretty good!" exclaimed 11-year-old Andy Amezquita, who was brought by neighbor.
Sergio Rivera, 9, seemed equally pleased with his package containing a chess set, a football, and a box marked Dig and Play Dinosaur World. Many of the gifts were donated by families in St. Anthony's, other Catholic parishes, and friends of the parish.
Perhaps the visibly happiest child of the day was 12-year-old Eury Plasencia, who leaped into the air and cried, "Yes!" when he correctly answered a Bible question and won a bicycle - one of 10 bikes donated to the parish for the occasion.
"People like giving us things" for Epiphany, Weiksman said. "But what would really help would be ongoing support all year long."
Christmas and Epiphany are "Kingdom of God moments," at St. Anthony's, he said. "But we need help the other 363 days as well."
Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or email@example.com.