Tonight, as my fir tree cuts a sad and droopy figure in the corner of my living room and the first week back at work destroys all trace of Yuletide joy, thousands of people will be taking to the streets of Spain for the arrival of Melchior, Gazpar and Balthasar – otherwise known as the Three Kings.
Apparently, these guys are even bigger than Saint Nick – 67% of Spanish kids actually prefer them to Santa himself, according to toy makers’ association AEFJ – and they play a very similar role to the man in the red suit.
In the run-up to their arrival on January 5th, children all over the country write them letters detailing the gifts they’d like to receive on January the 6th (Epiphany – the day the kings are said to have visited baby Jesus having followed the star to Bethlehem). They also report on their behaviour for the year: good children receive gifts, while little brats get lumps of ‘coal’ (made of sugar). They can hand their letters to the Three Wise Men in person when they rock up on the 5th (tonight), or leave them with designated postmen stationed in every town centre a few days before.
So while the rest of us are leaving out mince pies and carrots for Santa and Rudolph, Spanish kids are sorting out snacks for royalty – as well as water and grass for their camels. Obviously.
I only know this because of a chance conversation my mate Pete and I had with a waiter in my favourite tapas bar in Brixton the other week. This guy couldn’t wait to go home for the Los Tres Reyes Magos parade, and he couldn’t believe we’d never heard of it. He told us this thing is HUGE in his hometown of Igualada, and he had very fond memories of attending as a child.
What he described was something akin to a carnival, with costumes and music and fireworks. The three kings roll into town on giant illuminated floats, dressed in jewelled robes and glittering crowns, with an entourage of royal page boys to help them throw candy into the crowds.
But the best bit, apparently, is the distribution of the presents. As the procession trundles down the road, they all go door to door with giant ladders, climbing up to balconies and windows to deliver the children’s gifts – something the waiter had particularly enjoyed watching as a spectator as well as experiencing as a participant himself. It all sounded like a truly magical family experience and he was incredibly proud and eager to share it with us – so much so that he Googled it on his phone to show us some pictures.
Pictures like these:
As Pete and I sat open-mouthed, waiting for him to spot the fact that I’m quite clearly black, he excitedly scrolled through image after image without so much as batting an eyelid, all smiles and nostalgic anecdotes. Up until that moment, he’d seemed like a straight-up guy; we’d discussed music and Brexit and travel and cookery – and then this. Pete (who’s white) looked about ready to deck him, but I realised very quickly that he meant no harm. To him, it’s nothing more than a Christmas tradition – a lovely childhood memory. I don’t think he sees his lovely childhood memory as racist. Why would he?
It was a tricky one. I mean, seeing all those smiling, happy children… it hardly resembled a KKK convention or something intentionally conceived to cause offence (although, let’s be clear – it does). Perhaps they just got carried away with the geographical accuracy of it all in the 1800s when these parades began, and the tradition hasn’t quite caught up with the times – you can find real black people there now. Let’s just call it a… cultural faux pas.
Still, face paint aside, it genuinely looks like a cracking night out. Perhaps I’ll attend myself next year – at least I know I’ll blend in.
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