Spanish Traditions: The Three Kings

Christmas has passed for another year now, its celebrations in the UK were several weeks ago. In other countries, however, Christmas can be celebrated more on different dates. My family and I currently live in Spain, and more recently we have seen one example. Here, the 5th January is one of the most exciting days in the Spanish calendar, especially for children; While Santa does often visit on Christmas Eve, many children have to hold out until a few days later, when the Three Wise Men were thought to have arrived at Jesus’ birthplace: Epiphany.

Just like children around the world leave out a glass of something and a carrot for Santa and his reindeer, so Spanish children go to bed with a snack and drink ready for the Kings and their camels. Instead of stockings hung carefully by the fire, they place their shoes outside to tell the Kings how many small people live in the house, and for them to be filled with goodies (with larger presents to be placed alongside!) .

The Wise Men, Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, are seen in most towns and villages throughout Spain at some point during the day of the 5th January as they parade through the streets on highly decorated floats that represent their arrival from afar. The floats often following a procession of local dancers, music bands, jugglers and stilt walkers. These parades, called “cabalgatas”, even in the smallest of towns, are usually highly professionally decorated and packed with locals dressed up to match the theme, while in the big cities 100,000 people can come to watch a huge, televised event. Children and parents line the streets not only to enjoy the music and the visual feast of the entertainers, but also to catch the hundreds of thousands of sweets which are thrown from the people in the procession – usually hard boiled, wrapped candy which can leave a nasty bruise on the unwary! Some children hold up inverted umbrellas to catch the treats, while others scrabble on the ground, while their parents desperately try to hold them away from the wheels of the passing vehicles.

Thought to have hailed from Arabia, India and Persia, the Three Wise Men on the floats are often “played” by local people of importance (usually those such as senior council members). Traditionally, in Spain, Balthazar is portrayed as a black man, but with few people of colour in the councils of Spain, it is still considered acceptable for him to use black make-up – quite a cultural shock for those from countries where this would be seen as extremely racist! Times are a-changing, however, and in 2016 Madrid ensured that a black actor was given the part of Balthazar. While this caused some consternation across the country, it opened an important (if belated) conversation about the rights of people of colour living in Spain.

Following the excitement of the parade, children will haul their sweet bounty home (we carried a whole 5 kilos of sweets back this year!) and perhaps enjoy a slice of Roscón de Reyes before bed. This is a ring of sweet pastry, decorated with dried fruits, into which has been baked a small figurine of Jesus. Whoever has the slice in it with the figurine is considered to have good luck for the year, but whether they find it or not, children will find sleeping on the night of the 5th just as challenging as children who are waiting for Santa on the night of Christmas Eve.

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