As the holiday season approaches in Spain, Santa Claus isn’t the center of attention. The Three Wise Men—or Los Reyes Magos— take the limelight during the Christmas season. On the night before Three Kings Day, January 6, the wise men deliver gifts to Spanish children. Some Spanish families also celebrate Santa, but the most important ones are Los Reyes Magos.
The cabalgata, called a cavalcade or parade, highlights Noche de Reyes in Madrid and many other cities. As much as it is a religious affair focused on the Three Kings in the Christian tradition, it is very much a civic affair, shaped, as it has been throughout history, by the goals of particular governments.
What is Día de Los Reyes Magos?
Latin America and Spanish-speaking countries observe Three Kings Day, also known as Día de Los Reyes Magos. It is an integral part of the Christmas season, culminates in the 12 days of Christmas, and occurs on January 6. It’s a Christian tradition remembering the wise men’s gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh to Jesus.
Most kids open their gifts on January 6 rather than on December 25. This tradition suggests saving some presents to open on January 6. For the celebration of Jesus’ birth, children wait for the Magi instead of Santa Claus.
The feast commemorates the Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought to the newborn Jesus in Matthew 2:1-11. The biblical text doesn’t make explicit that there were three magi, nor does it specify that they were men or kings. But Christians filled in the details and even named them. In Spanish, they’re called Gaspar, Melchor, and Baltazar.
Spanish Christmas traditions did not include Santa Claus or Christmas trees until recently. The Three Kings is the traditional day of gift-giving in Spain. Christmas has thus remained a more serene day untouched by commercialism.
The Cabalgata or Cavalcade or Parade
After Christmas is the most popular time to shop for Three Kings, the sweet bread made from candied fruit, Roscón de Reyes, goes on display in bakeries before the feast. On the twelfth night or Epiphany, there are booths outside department stores where children can meet the three kings and tell them what gifts they want to receive that year.
By 3 pm, the parade routes are full of eager spectators looking for front-row spots. After 5 pm, the path has more families, and 7:30 pm has more adults than children. TV crews broadcast the whole event for those who stay at home. The parade, led by the municipal police on horseback, features approximately 30 groups or floats. Disney, television stations, and department stores sometimes sponsor:
- Real Madrid team floats
- Dance groups
- Police units
- The cabalgata called a cavalcade or parade
- Civic groups
Participants in the parade throw candy and other gifts, and children use inverted open umbrellas to catch the candy.
Which Days are Celebrated and Why?
It is customary to begin celebrations one day before the feast day of the Magi. As part of the celebration of the kings, Spaniards hold parades all over the country on January 5. The Three Kings parade, or Cabalgata de Los Reyes Magos, draws crowds of Spanish families to their hometowns.
They adorn Nativity decorations with the Three Kings on January 5. Children leave their shoes outside overnight in anticipation of a visit from the wise men. Their shoes will have gifts for them in the morning. As a festival known for commemorating the three kings who brought gifts to the baby Jesus, they celebrate it on January 6. For Spanish children, the Día de Los Reyes is almost as important as Christmas since, on this day, they exchange presents.
Cavalcades a century ago were simpler with far less candy emphasis, according to those who remember them. The kings, their camels, attendants, and the pretend gifts were the center of attention.
At night, the children leave empty shoes on the windowsill, three small dishes to feed the camels, and three small water bottles to satisfy the kings. Kings used to fill the shoes with candy, but nowadays, the gifts and the wish lists have grown in size.
What are the Traditional Foods?
It’s traditional for families and friends to gather on Kings Day to sip hot chocolate or atole (a thick, warm drink made of corn). Rosca de Reyes, sweet bread in the shape of a wreath and topped with candied fruit, is part of the celebrations. They bake a baby Jesus figurine inside the wreath commemorating Jesus’ hiding from Herod.
Día de Los Reyes in Spain is not complete without the “Rosca de Reyes,” or Wreath of the Kings. The cake symbolizes the crown. The recipient of the figurine must host a party on February 2 or “Día de La Candelaria.”
There are no Christmas puddings, mince pies, or turkeys. On January 6, most Spaniards celebrate Three Kings’ Day with their main special meals. It is traditional to eat Picadillo meat with rice and beans—you can substitute corn or peas for the beans—and have a King’s cake for dessert. Some other delicacies that grace Día de Los Reyes may include:
Often, entremeses serve as the appetizer before the main meal. It could include charcuterie such as ham, chorizo, morcilla (black pudding), and Manchego cheese.
As the main course of a festive Spanish meal, they often serve seafood instead of turkey. The most popular dishes are lobster and prawns and a seafood soup or stew for a starter.
Cochinillo Asado or Roasted Suckling Pig
Many parts of Spain, particularly in the Castilla y León region, celebrate Día de Los Reyes Magos with suckling pigs. Most times, the skin is browned and crispy, and they add potatoes and onions to the cooking process. Contact us for our special Cochinillo Asado at our locations in Midtown East, Chelsea and Nolita.
It wouldn’t be a festive Spanish meal without Cava, the Spanish version of Champagne. You can have the best in the Penedès region of Catalonia. With this celebration, the holiday season ends: children go back to school, and adults back to work. How do you feel about this tradition?