It’s the 6th January and here we are on the Costa Blanca coast in south east Spain, not far from Benidorm. For most of you at home, Christmas will be well over. If you’re anything like me, the decorations will be down and you’ll be happy to get the house straight again in time for the children going back to school on Monday.
Here in Spain though, things are very different. The decorations are still firmly in place and yesterday people were still doing some last minute Christmas shopping. That is because here in Spain, children don’t receive presents from Santa Claus: their gifts are brought instead by the Three Kings. In a similar way that children in the U.K. write to Santa, children here write to the Three Kings – in the post office we even saw a special posting box for children’s letters. And if you remember the story, the Kings came from far away, following the star, so they took a while to reach the baby Jesus in his stable and this is why their arrival is marked here on the night of 5th January, a full 11 days after he was born.
Three Kings Parade
The three kings really arrive in style here in Spain. Virtually every town and village has its own parade, the lavishness of which depends on the resources of the town. Since our campsite is right on the edge of the town of Vilajoysa (‘Joyful City’) we walked into town to see what their parade was like. We weren’t sure of the exact route the parade would follow, but we needn’t have worried: as soon as we got near to the centre of town we could see lots of families with children lining the streets. We had done our homework and, just like the local children, Emma and Megan were armed with their plastic bags ready to collect the sweets that the kings throw out into the crowds. Some people apparently even use upturned umbrellas, but we didn’t go that far!
We didn’t have to wait long. The parade was a bit like a summer carnival parade in the U.K. except it was 6pm and it was dark. There were dancing troupes, samba drummers, people dressed up in traditional Spanish costumes and carnival floats with Christmas themes. And in between all of them were bigger floats that brought the stars of the show: firstly Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus and then, one by one, the three Kings. Two of them arrived by camel, and the third with an elephant! (Not real ones, but pretty much life-sized models – they must need a huge warehouse to store them for the rest of the year!)
As they all passed, there was an interesting mix of music, from traditional Spanish through Jingle Bells to Mariah Carey. Of most interest to all of the assembled children though was how many sweets they delivered. Some groups were depositing cupfulls of popcorn into the children’s bags, others threw handfuls of sweets out into the crowd, sending the children all diving to the floor to retrieve them.
There was a lovely atmosphere and hundreds of people out in the town, mostly locals as this isn’t a very touristy town. The Kings were all walking, followed by their entourage with their camel/elephant, and they waved to the children as they passed, sometimes stopping to have their picture taken with someone. Similar to our tradition of leaving stockings out for Santa, Spanish children leave their shoes outside on the eve of the Kings arriving so that they know how many children live in the house. Tradition has it that if the children have been good, the kings leave them small presents; if they have not been good, they leave them some coal. Spanish children are sure to leave a drink for each of the three kings and some food and drink for their camels, as this is apparently the only night of the year when the animals get to eat and drink. Some children get their presents on the night of the 5th, others on the 6th itself. Apparently some families here set up their nativity scene in such a way as to be able to move the wise men closer and closer to the stable over the Christmas period so that they arrive at the stable on the night of the 5th.
Roscon de Reyes
Today, 6th January, is Epiphany, Twelfth Night, and the last day of Christmas here. It will also be the biggest day of the year, equivalent to our Christmas Day and everyone will be on holiday: shops and restaurants will be closed and most people will be spending the day with family and friends. The children will open their presents and everyone will start the day with a piece of Roscon de Reyes – the Three Kings cake. This is a large round cake, decorated with sliced almonds and ‘jewels’ of candied fruit on the top and often filled with cream or custard. Its texture is a bit like a sweet bread or brioche and it is absolutely delicious! You see these cakes on sale everywhere here – in the supermarket, at the market and in the local Pasteleria or bakeries. In the supermarket yesterday they were flying off the shelves, with some people taking two or three of them home.
As well as being delicious to eat, there is something else special about the cakes: inside is hidden a bean and a small figure. Whoever gets the figure in their slice gets to be king or queen for the day and wears the gold crown included in the box; whoever gets the bean has to buy next year’s cake! As we tucked into our cake for breakfast today, Emma found the figure (actually a dinosaur toy!) in her slice and was happy to don the crown and be queen for the day. Megan on the other hand was glad that we probably won’t be in Spain again next new year as she got the bean!
Eroding of traditions
Of course, now that we live in such a global world, Spain is as much affected by the influence of other cultures as we are in the U.K and influences have started to creep in to undermine their traditions. Some families are apparently now doing both the Three Kings and Santa, and the children get a few presents on both days. Others want to stick firmly to the Spanish traditions and want to keep Three Kings Day as the only celebration. The further south we have come in Spain, the more Santa had been in evidence. One home we saw even had both Santa and the Three Kings climbing up the balcony!
The Three Kings parades themselves are also not without controversy. The Kings would traditionally have been ‘played’ by local council officials and in many small towns in Spain there was (is) often no black official to step in to be Balthazar, so one of the white councillors simply ‘blacked-up’ for the occasion. Nowadays in the U.K. I don’t think we can imagine anyone doing that as it would be seen as racist and not at all socially acceptable. In the Vilajoysa parade though, Balthazar and his entourage were all wearing black face paint and black gloves. It was a clear visual reminder of the cultural differences between our two countries.
A month of celebrations
It has been very interesting to see how differently the Spanish celebrate Christmas than we do in the U.K. When I first heard that they carry on celebrating Christmas here until 6th January I was shocked and surprised that it should go on for so long. But, what I do like is that Christmas here has clearly defined limits: it starts on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8th December and finishes on Three Kings Day on 6th January. Done. Dusted. A month of festivities and nothing more. Now THAT I can work with!
As a footnote to today, we moved campsites from Vilajoysa to somewhere near Murcia. Our new campsite is full of Spanish families celebrating Three Kings Day and I have never been on such a noisy campsite. In the middle of the afternoon when we arrived, this wasn’t so much of a problem – just everyone having a good time with family and friends. I have just checked the time: it is now 11:30pm and the loud music is still playing, the children are still up, racing around on scooters, bikes and skateboards and the adults are still talking loudly. Very loudly! I have no idea when it might quieten down. Megan has managed to get to sleep but Emma is still awake. Maybe we have just been lucky and have managed to avoid noisy campsites in the UK and France, but we haven’t experienced anything even close to this level of noise before!
I am finishing this off on Saturday 7h January. The noise last night finally quietened down about midnight. However, as I write this now it is 10:45pm and I can still hear our neighbours talking loudly and laughing……hopefully they’ll be going home tomorrow and back to work on Monday!
Update added 8th January: well, they were still going full tilt at 2:30am! We had both already managed to get to sleep around midnight but were then woken by some particularly loud and raucous conversation. They were not making any attempt whatsoever to keep their voices down. If the children hadn’t been asleep we would probably have gone out to have a word with them or phoned site security, but as it was we didn’t want to wake the girls.
It’s just inconsiderate isn’t it? And to be honest it isn’t the first time we have had extremely loud Spanish neighbours – nothing quite as bad as this, but extremely loud nevertheless. But that’s a whole other blog post!!! For now, if they aren’t packing up to leave today, we will be! I don’t like to end things on a negative note, but it’s a shame that one of my overriding memories of Three Kings Day will be the noise!