The Three Wise Men: why Spanish children get presents on the 6th of January
In Spain, Father Christmas doesn't bring the gifts, the Three Wise Men do. Discover the history behind the tradition, and what happens on the 6th of January
In the first week of January, just as the rest of the Christmas-celebrating world is reluctantly getting back into their routines and probably kick-starting a healthy diet and fitness plan, Spanish children are waiting expectantly for the Three Wise Men to arrive. After Christmas and New Year, the lucky Spanish still have another family day of celebration to come, in the form of the arrival of the Reyes Magos, the Wise Men from the East who followed a star and came bearing gifts for the Baby Jesus.
The 6th of January is always a bank holiday in Spain, spinning out the festivities for an extra week. But why is the Epiphany holiday in Spain such a big deal and how is it celebrated? Read on to find out a bit about the history of the Reyes Magos day, and why Spanish children have to wait until the 6th of January to get their Christmas presents.
A brief history of the Three Wise Men in Spain
Ever wondered what the ’12 days of Christmas’ actually are, beyond just an excuse for a good sing-along? Officially, Christmas kicks off on the 25th of December and carries on until the 6th of January. In the UK, the 6th of January is generally a bit of a depressing day, as it’s the day you’re meant to take your Christmas decorations down, as leaving them up any longer is supposed to be bad luck.
But in Spain, the Feast of the Epiphany or the Three Kings’ Day is a celebration of the adoration of the baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men, also known as the Magi, or the Three Kings. Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar travelled to present baby Jesus with three symbolic gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. They’re said to have ridden on a horse, a camel and an elephant.
This feast is celebrated all over the Christian world, but it’s traditionally just marked by mass, although there are other Epiphany celebrations that go on. In many Catholic countries, it’s also a bank holiday, but in most places, it isn’t associated with gift giving, despite the Three Wise Men’s gifts.
In Spain, however, the fact that the Three Wise Men brought gifts to Jesus meant that, when the tradition of gifts being brought by Father Christmas began to spread in other countries, the Spanish custom of the gifts being brought by the Three Kings spread up as a kind of imitation of it, with more of a religious slant.
How the arrival of the Three Kings’ gifts is celebrated
The celebrations of the arrival of the biblical wise men to Bethlehem kick off on the 5th of January. Since the 19th century, Spanish towns and cities have been putting on parades to mark the occasion. There might be floats with effigies of each of the Three Wise Men in the parade, or they might be played by local dignitaries. Either way, these are big, colourful parades that make their way through the main streets of the town, throwing handfuls of sweets out over the crowds. These are fun, light-hearted parades, in contrast to the sombre parades during Holy Week, or Semana Santa.
Just like children waiting up for Father Christmas, Spanish children have to get to bed early after watching the parades, to make sure they don’t miss the Wise Men bearing gifts. They leave their best pair of shoes, sparkling clean, outside their doors to be filled with gifts. Again, just like with Father Christmas, Spanish children write letters to the Three Wise Men before the big day and leave out snacks and drinks for their camels. Naughty children might get sweet ‘coal’ in their shoes instead of gifts. In the past, this was the only day that Spanish children received presents, but these days many lucky kids get presents from Father Christmas as well.
The 6th is another family day, with everyone coming together to watch the kids unwrapping presents, and there’s normally another big family meal. The day wouldn’t be complete without the traditional Roscón de Reyes, sweet circular bread with sugar and dried fruits on top. There’s a little model of a king or queen hidden inside, and whoever finds it gets to be king or queen for the day. There’s also normally a bean in there, and whoever gets that has to buy the sweet treat the following year.
Spend January 6th in Spain
What better way to kick off a new year than treating yourself to a holiday? There might not be any Three Wise Men coming to bring you presents, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give yourself the ultimate gift and spend a few days in Spain right at the start of the year. Skip the depressing, post-New Year slump when the nights are at their shortest and all the Christmas lights are being taken down and head south for some much-needed sunshine.
See the Epiphany celebration in Spain for yourself, whether it’s in one of the country’s stunning big cities, on the sun-kissed south coast, or even in the Canary Islands, where it’s spring all year round. Take the kids and let them enjoy the magic of this quintessentially Spanish experience, all whilst staying in one of the best family friendly hotels.