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