Here come the Three Kings!
While most of Europe is now recovering from Christmas and slowly getting back to normal, here in Spain, as in other parts of the Hispanic world (Central and Latin America), we’re just getting ready for the grand finale of our festive celebrations: Día de Reyes or Three King’s Day. If you aren’t Spanish or Hispanic you might not know what this day is all about, where to catch the best Cabalgatas (processions) or what the famous Roscón de Reyes is made of, but you soon will!
Also known as Epiphany, Feast of the Epiphany or Twelfth Night, it marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas and is traditionally when children in Spain received their gifts, in reflection of when the Magi (Wise Men or Kings) arrived with gifts for baby Jesus. Nowadays, the tradition of Santa Claus has also spread throughout Spain, so most children also receive presents at Christmas, but the Día de Reyes remains one of the most important dates in the Spanish calendar.
Who are the Three Kings?
Firstly, we have Melchior (Melchor), with his white hair and long beard, who comes from Europe. Then there’s Caspar (Gaspar), all the way from Asia – he’s the youngest of the three. Finally, we have Balthazar (Baltasar), the king from Africa. According to biblical scriptures, it was the Three Kings who gave the baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Despite having to travel from so far away, they were guided by the ‘star of the east’ towards Bethlehem. The magical star is nowadays, of course, thought to have been a comet.
The night before – La Noche de Reyes
During the evening of the 5th of January, children all over Spain are excited and nervous, waiting impatiently for the Three Kings to arrive and looking forward to seeing what presents they will receive. It’s typical to write a letter to them beforehand, much like with Santa Claus, asking for the gifts they want the most. A tradition that’s less common now than it used to be is leaving a shoe on the balcony or outside the front door and expecting to see it filled with sweets or small presents the next morning. There are tales about the origin of this tradition, but today the majority of children that still leave their shoes out do it so that the Three Kings know where to leave their presents. It’s also common to leave some food and water for the Kings’ camels. The highlight of the 5th is the cabalgata, the traditional procession to mark the arrival of the Kings (see later).
Time to open presents!
Finally the 6th of January arrives and it’s time to see if the Three Kings have brought us cool presents or… coal! The children that have misbehaved during the year normally receive edible black coal made out of sugar, although nowadays it’s done more as a joke than anything else. While the kids are playing with their new gifts, it’s time to take out the famous Roscón de Reyes, a sweet bread shaped like a crown, with candied fruit on top, a custard or cream filling (although it can also be plain) and a figurine hidden inside (sometimes baby Jesus, sometimes a King). Traditionally, whoever finds the figure (and hopefully doesn’t break a tooth in the process) gets to wear the gold paper crown and will have a year of good luck. Some roscones also have a plastic bean hidden – if your piece contains the bean, you have to buy the roscón next year!
Where are the best cabalgatas?
If you are lucky enough to be in the south of Tenerife on the 5th of January, you will be able to catch one of the great cabalgatas (processions) that take place around the island. Over-excited children will thoroughly enjoy themselves catching the sweets that the Kings throw out from their carriages (or in some cases from their camel). The cabalgata usually takes several hours to complete as it moves quite slowly to make sure everyone gets a good view of the Kings, so you should definitely take a jacket with you. It might be warm at 18:00, but you never know what time it’s going to finish!
The arrival of the Three Kings is especially exciting in Adeje, as they arrive by helicopter, no less! The children can wait for them in the local football stadium, where they land to the cheers and applause of hundreds of locals and are met by the Mayor before heading off all the way up the main street, Calle Grande, where they will hand out around 500 kilos of sweets during the procession. The Municipal Band and several other dance groups also join the procession to liven things up.
On the 5th of January you’ll also be able to see the Their Royal Highnesses travelling around streets of Los Cristianos on camelback. They arrive at around 19:30 on a replica of an old galleon to Los Cristianos’ harbour, where they will start their tour until arriving to the nativity scene in the Cultural Centre. Seeing the Kings also gives children the chance to hand them their letters, making sure they receive the presents they want the next morning.
Witnessing a cabalgata is huge fun, but you’ll need to bear in mind that if you want to see the action up close, you’ll need to arrive quite early as there are normally crowds of people. Parking can also be very tricky on the night of the 5th, so, if possible, try and find an alternative way of getting there (taxi for example).