We Three Kings

The Christmas Season, or ‘silly ‘season is upon us, a time when myths and traditions materialize in our daily lives out of nowhere like the apparitions of Christmases past. Some of them are old friends, and others are strangers. One of the more curious Spanish traditions is that of the Three Kings or Three Wise Men (Los Reyes). Everyone knows them, everyone defers to them, but no-one seems to be able to explain where they come from exactly, or why they are so important in Spain and not anywhere else. Spanish children have gifts from Papa Noel, who comes on the 24th rather than the 25th, then pretty soon after that, as we are packing away the tinsel and have been back to work for a week, the Three Kings come on the 6th January and bring more presents.  Spaniards are very enthusiastic about traditions and fiestas, but are often unaware of their cultural origin or importance. Also, they are more pragmatic and prepared to just get on with enjoying it because it’s a fiesta, rather than questioning the finer points, the why’s and wherefore’s. But I can’t help questioning everything, having grown from a curious child into an insatiably inquisitive adult.

‘Why do you celebrate the three kings then?’ seemed like a logical question, but was answered with,

‘I don’t know. Well, they brought Jesus all the gifts, didn’t they, and now they bring us gifts.’

‘And how do they get into your houses?’ I asked naively, confiding that, ‘Father Christmas comes into our houses down the chimney.’

I was met with a blank stare.

‘Through the front door.’

‘So… do they have keys to everyone’s houses, then?’

A shrug. ‘How do I know? They can get in. It’s not difficult for them, they just work it out; they’re wise.’

One teenage student shared a story about a friend of hers years before, who, with a child’s logic had a hissy fit when her parents told her the three kings would let themselves into the house during the night while she was asleep to leave the gifts under the tree. ‘But I don’t know them!’ she protested. ‘I don’t want them to break into our house. If they can get in then any old rapist can get in as well.’

‘But only they can get in, nobody else can. They’re the three wise men, they’re magic.’ they assured her.

‘And what if there’s a magic rapist? I don’t want a magic rapist creeping around my house in the middle of the night while I sleep. Tell them not to come!’

In honour of the three kings on the 6th January every local council organises a ‘Cabalgata de los Reyes’; (Three Kings’ Parade). Local businesses sponsor floats, and people dress up as kings, elves, fairies and pixies. The kings are issued with sacks full of sweets and as the floats roll pass, it is traditional for them to hurl handfuls of sweets into the expectant crowds. It is a typically Spanish fiesta- boisterous, fun, and of course, with an element of physical danger. First of all the children have to fight the legions of old ladies who scrabble over them to get to the caramels and boiled sweets. Adults get carried away. I am told the best way to collect sweets is to take an umbrella which you upturn and use as a funnel. Someone’s father once had the lense of his glasses smashed by a direct hit, another girl nearly had her eye out when a sweet hit her directly in the eye socket one year. All good clean Spanish fun.

In Germany the gifts are brought by a special child, a fusion of the Christ child and an angel, called the Christkinder. Suitably solemn, sentimental and religious. In Norway the gifts are brought by a naughty elf who dresses in red and white, and has a long white beard. He must be appeased with a bowl of porridge left outside for him on Christmas night or he plays practical jokes on the children. In Italy it is a special witch who delivers the presents and shares them out, and whose wrath must be avoided at all costs by being a good little boy or girl. (Oh, how little it surprised me when I discovered that there was a female figure bossing the Italians around and controlling the goodies). And in Spain, there are three gift-givers, and nobody knows their significance, or quite why they are there, just that they’re coming, they’re on the way, they’ll be here in a bit. The Spanish don’t like to do things solo, something they must have learned from the arabs that has persisted over the centuries. It’s always better to go everywhere as one big homogenous group, whether that’s going to hospital for a check up or nipping down to the pharmacy. The Kings just illustrate a common Spanish social custom: ask a friend to join you for a coffee or even dinner and he or she may turn up forty five minutes late with three other mates, possibly with a call first to let you know they’re coming, sometimes with no notice at all.  You invite one king, you get three. If two’s company and three’s a crowd, then four or five, or what the hell, the whole family, everyone you know, and half the barrio is even better.

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