Los Reyes Magos: The Spanish Christmas Tradition
Christmas may have come and gone, but many kids here in Spain are still eagerly awaiting their presents. That’s because it is not Santa Claus who brings them gifts on Christmas Day. The tradition here is that Los Reyes Magos, known as the Three Wise Men or the Three Kings in English, bring Spanish children their gifts on the Day of the Epiphany on January 6th. According to Christian tradition, this was the day that Melchior (known as Melchor in Spanish), Caspar (Gaspar), and Balthasar (Baltasar) came to visit the baby Jesus and brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Festivities officially start the day before La Adoración de los Reyes Magos. On January 5th, in towns and cities all around the country, Spanish families line the streets to get a glimpse of the Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos, a reenactment of the arrival of the Three Kings. These parades are truly a sight to behold! Amidst dancers, musicians, and puppeteers, the Kings ride on camels or elaborate floats and throw goodies down to the children, usually candy or sweets.
That evening, kids leave out their shoes in a spot where the Kings are sure to see them. Much like the traditional milk and cookies for Santa Claus and his reindeer, Spanish children often set out plates of food or sweets for los Reyes and something extra for the camels (dried grass or hay for the traditionalists, or milk and bread if those aren’t handy!). The next morning, children are delighted to discover the plates nibbled or eaten entirely. But most importantly, next to their shoes are the wrapped presents from los Reyes Magos, waiting to be ripped open!
Another important tradition after the gift-opening is the breakfast of Roscón de Reyes. It’s a delicious round-shaped cake with candied fruit or fruta escarchada on top, to symbolize the precious gems that adorned the wise men’s clothing; sometimes the roscón is filled with fresh nata (whipped cream), trufa (truffle cream) or cabello de ángel (angel’s hair), a sort of sugared pumpkin jam. Inside the cake, two plastic wrapped figurines are hidden: a faba bean and a small king. Whoever gets the slice of the cake with the small king is the “king” or “queen” of the banquet, and is said to have good luck for the rest of the year. Whoever finds the faba bean has to pay for the roscón! These desserts are usually sold in pastry shops and bakeries in the weeks leading up to Reyes, wrapped in decorative paper and wreathed with a golden paper crown.
Although sightings of Santa Claus are becoming more common in recent years, historically La Adoración de los Reyes Magos is the most important Christmas tradition in Spain. If you are in Madrid on January 5th, you MUST add seeing the Cabalgata to your holiday to-do list. And be sure to buy a roscón to accompany your morning coffee or hot chocolate!