By early January in many European homes, Christmas is almost completely over, with the discarded wrapping paper long since recycled and the spectacular feasts reduced to delicious memories and a suspicion that your clothes were not always this tight. However, in many Spanish-speaking countries, the celebrations are still at an anticipatory stage, with children across the nation eagerly counting down to 6 January, when the three kings, or tres reyes mages, arrive bearing gifts.
Although Christmas gift-givers like the Christkind, St Nicolas, La Befana and Santa Lucia are notably disparate in terms of history and appearance, their schedules mainly coincide, with presents distributed on either 5 or 24 December. Many of these traditional icons have also found themselves competing for attention with Santa Claus in recent years, as his prominent position in British and American culture spreads his appeal around the world. Similar pressure has led to some Hispanic families welcoming Papá Noel in December, but even they will typically still hold their main celebration in January and honour the three kings.
The story of the magi begins in the Holy Bible, but their names, distinctive appearances and even royal titles were all later additions. Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar are believed to come from an ancient Greek manuscript, while the number three may be linked to the three famous presents: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Today, the three kings are often seen as representing different world regions coming together to celebrate the birth of Jesus – Balthasar hails from Africa, Caspar from Asia and Melchior from Europe, the three known continents of the Biblical era. Another tradition aligns them with the ‘three ages of man’, an idea that is portrayed in several ‘Adoration of the Magi’ paintings.
The kings certainly do not arrive quietly. On Epiphany Eve, each town and city across Spain holds a cavalcade, or parade, with colourful floats, the kings in full regalia and a nativity scene. The huge spectacles in Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona draw immense crowds, but Alcoy lays claim to the oldest cavalcade event. In this ancient city, the celebrations begin on the Sunday before Epiphany with Les Pastoretes, in which children dress up as shepherds and parade with their flocks, representing the humble shepherds who were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth.
The kings’ Biblical role as bringers of presents has led to centuries of them fulfilling the same role for children in Hispanic countries from Paraguay to the Philippines. On 26 December, it’s traditional for children to write a letter to the three kings asking them for specific gifts. On Epiphany Eve they leave their shoes out for the kings to find and fill, while some children also include a box of grass for the kings’ camels. Despite the fanfare of the previous day, the kings fall in line with their fellow gift-givers by arriving stealthily in the night, leaving presents as the only sign of their visit.
If you want to extend your holiday season by celebrating the Día de los Tres Reyes Magos, you may wish to consider adding a Spanish property to your portfolio. With shops in charming cities from Barcelona to Bilbao, Engel & Völkers are always ideally placed to assist in your search. For more information, visit us online or in person.