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.