Santa Claus vs the three Wise men

Christmas in Spain has been a nice surprise. Coming from a Catholic country that was colonized by an Iberian state, I assumed Christmas here would be much the same as back home. Or at least more similar, with Christmas being celebrated on Dec 24th, for example.

I couldn’t be further from the truth. At first you think it’s much like in the rest of the wold. Streets, houses and stores are decorated with lights. People run back and forth trying to get gifts. Most flee the city to spend it with their families in their country homes. They all plan on gorging on as much food as possible. Check, check, check, double check!

When you look at it more closely, however, you notice the differences.

Take Santa Claus for example. In the western world, we all assume he is intrinsic to Christmas. Some people complain that we’ve moved away from the original meaning of Christmas as a holiday to celebrate the birth of Christ, to a purely commercial event symbolized by Santa and his gifts. He is even in Brazil, where he looks quite odd wearing his winter clothes in the middle of the summer. But in Brazil he doesn’t arrive on a sledge – how could he? there’s no snow! – but rather on a helicopter! Anyways, here in Spain Santa isn’t very big. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t mean that Spanish kids don’t get their gifts. The exchange of gifts is the same and kids write letters. But not to Santa. They write to the three Wise men (aka the Magi or the three kings) who, according to the Christian story, visited Mary and the baby Jesus bearing gifts.

To be faithful to the story, therefore, the big exchage of gifts doesn’t happen on Dec 25 but rather on January 6th, the day of Epiphany, or Twelth Night. On January 5th most Spanish towns celebrate the Cabalgata de los Reyes, when the three kings arrive in the town and the children go out to see them and ask for gifts. It’s kind of like the Santa Claus parade in Norh America.

Here’s what happens in Barcelona:

“On 5 January every year, the evening before Twelfth Night (Epiphany, 6 January) the Thee Kings (or Three Wise Men of the New Testament) arrive by boat at the waterfront of Barcelona (Moll de la Fusta) to be greeted by the Mayor of the city and conducted to the nearby park of Ciutadella. From there the Three Kings depart in their carriages, the principal part of a grand parade that proceeds slowly through the streets and avenues of the centre towards the Olympic Stadium. The Kings and other participants in the parade throw barley sugar sweets and other candies to the children lining the route. There are many stalls along the way, especially along Gran Via. The days leading up to the parade allow the opportunity for children to inspect the Three Kings’ boat and carriages, and to leave messages requesting gifts, which they (and adults, too) receive, traditionally, on 6 January”

I think it’s a really nice tradition. I mean, it does make more sense and it preserves more of the Biblical story. At least it keeps Christ part of Christmas, because to explain who the three wise men are, you need to talk about Christ. But like everything else that is more local, this is being threatened by globalization as more and more Spanish kids want to get their gifts on Dec 25th… Some do both Santa & los reyes.[update: they've just said in the local news that 2 in every 5 Spanish kids get gifts on both dates] I hope they don’t lose their tradition.

Fore more Spanish Christmas holiday traditions see here.

To illustrate the central role of the three wise men within Christmas tradition here, I leave you with a picture of our milk box:

The three wise cows

Stay tuned for a post on a unique Catalan traditions – the caganer & the caga-tio:

Caganers

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10 Responses to “Santa Claus vs the three Wise men”


  1. 1 HD December 24, 2006 at 12:24 pm

    Hey Alex! Thanks for the card and a Merry Christmas to you and Alan too! Good to hear you enjoy the different traditions in Europe. Isn’t it interesting too how all is colored by our background? For example, I would not generalize Santa Claus related to Christmas in “the West” (whatever that is than, the America’s?) as much as you do. Read in your Santa link how Santa Claus comes from the bishop Sint Nicholas? Well, in the Netherlands the big present gift day is still on December the 5th, when we celebrate Sinterklaas! No presents with Christmas (although Santa is competing with Sinterklaas nowadays…), and so eventhough I consider myself coming from a western country, I have nothing with Santa Claus. We had a little Sinterklaas party here this year. Join next year and you’ll learn more about this fun tradition! J, especially loves the food that comes with it ;-)…..

  2. 2 guerson December 24, 2006 at 3:02 pm

    Hello Heidi!

    By West I meant Europe & the Americas (maybe Oceania as well).
    From what I understand, the Santa Claus tradition does come from St Nicholas and that it was brought to the US through the dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam (now New York). The word “Santa Claus” actually derives from “Sinterklaas” ;) So, you may have more to do with Santa Claus than you thought ;)

    I would love to join your Sinterklaas party next year!

  3. 3 HD December 24, 2006 at 4:06 pm

    I know I know (hey we know our history Alex…). What I meant is that exactly because of celebrating the original Sinterklaas, the Dutch use not to celebrate CHRISTMAS with presents. Sinterklaas is gift time and Christmas is a religious celebration. Which I like, because, like you, I like to see the Biblical story preserved…..

    So, yes indeed, Santa and Sint seem to be one and the same guy, but somehow Sint/Santa got related to Christmas time in the Americas, and now they are two different guys! And now we get confused…. This all let to great discussions at Christmas parties recently.

    Sinterklaas lives in Spain during off-season. Not a bad place to retreat heh? Wishing you a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year in Barcelona! H.

  4. 4 guerson December 24, 2006 at 6:41 pm

    oh yes! now I remember when we talked about the dutch santa claus living in Spain! I find that part of the legend fascinating… wonder where it comes from…

  5. 5 guerson December 24, 2006 at 6:44 pm

    This is what I found:
    “In Holland people believe that St. Nicholas comes from Spain. This must be because in the 17th century Holland was famous for its navigation so the Dutch sailors had plenty of contact with the Spanish sailors. Also, Holland was ruled by Spain in the 16th century. The Spanish sailors believed in St. Nicholas as their guardian Saint. They must have told the Dutch sailors about this and the Dutch sailors must have taken that back to Holland.”

    What do you think?

  6. 6 Frederick January 6, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Santa Claus makes visits to many houses in Spain, too. Some kids get their presents from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and others from The Three Wise Men; …and some spoiled brats like me get presents on both days.

  7. 7 retro November 19, 2007 at 9:31 am

    Hard to believe Christmas is already around the corner!

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  1. 1 Santa Claus vs the three Wise men » Dream! Alcalá Trackback on December 10, 2013 at 11:42 am

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