In 2019, I celebrated Día de los Tres Reyes Magos aka Day of the Three Magic Kings with a picnic in Barcelona while overlooking the city from a perch in Park Güell. Two years later, and I have made it back to Spain to celebrate this special day.
Spaniards celebrate Three Kings Day on January 6th. I love this tradition because it extends the magic of Christmas just a little bit longer. The holiday recognizes the day the Three Wisemen showed up at the stable to give baby Jesus gifts. Nowadays, the Three Kings visit homes on the night of January 5th and leave presents for the children.
I know what you’re thinking…the three kings sound a lot like Santa Claus, right? Yup. But here is why the Spanish are really lucky, they get BOTH.
Santa Claus vs. Three Kings
According to some of my coworkers, Santa Claus aka Papa Noel did not always have a huge presence in Spain. In fact, some families still do not celebrate the tradition of Santa Claus, and most of my students have told me they prefer the Three Kings to Santa. (Three Kings = more presents vs. One Santa). However, in the past couple of generations Santa Claus has become more normalized, and he is known to leave a gift or two on Christmas Day. I have summarized some of the subtle differences between Santa Claus and the Three Kings:
While in the U.S., we leave out stockings for Santa, families in Spain leave out their shoes for the Three Kings.
Santa rides a sleigh pulled by reindeers. The Three Kings ride camels.
Americans leave out milk and cookies for Santa. Spanish people leave out sandwiches for the Three Kings.
Santa enters houses through the chimney. The Three Kings climb through the window. (A lot of houses in Spain do not have chimneys)
Santa takes photographs at the mall. Three Kings take photographs at the mall.
In every major city and even some towns, you are likely to find a cabalgata or parade on the night of January 5th. These parades welcome the Three Kings: Gaspar, Balthazar and Melchior as they ride through the streets on floats and throw candy at the crowds. Due to COVID-19, Spain has made adjustments to this years’ festivities, turning some parades into pre-recorded or virtual crowd-less events.
Because I will not experience a Canary Island parade this year, I thought I would reminisce on my experience from 2019. In Cataluña, the Three Kings arrive on January 5th by boat before the parade. During the parade, performers on stilts approach the crowds with long nets for children to place cards they have written to the Three Kings asking for presents. Countless people bring ladders from home to get a better view and even carry these ladders through the metro station. At the end of the parade, the Three Kings receive the keys to the city which will allow them to open every door to every home in Barcelona for one night only.
Roscon de Reyes
Another sweet tradition is the Roscon de Reyes or the King’s Cake. This cake is enjoyed by friends and family members on Three King’s Day. The cake has two hidden objects inside; a tiny king figurine and a bean. If you happen to be lucky enough to have the piece of cake with the king, well…. you win. You might even be given a paper crown to wear if you so please. However, if you find the bean, it’s your turn to buy the Roscon de Reyes the following year.
I feel very fortunate to now have spent two Three Kings Days in Spain, and it is a celebration I very much think the U.S. should consider adopting.