This blog post was originally posted on December 28, 2012 and was updated on November 20, 2020.
In Spain, Santa Claus isn’t the star of the show when the holiday season rolls around.
Instead, it’s the Three Wise Men—or los reyes magos—who take center stage during the winter holidays. They’re the ones who bring Spanish children their gifts the night before Three Kings Day on January 6.
While some Spanish families have also embraced the Santa tradition in recent years, it’s los reyes magos who are the most important. Read on to learn more about this beloved Spanish holiday tradition!
Who are “los reyes magos”?
According to Christian tradition, three wise men came to visit the newborn baby Jesus shortly after his birth. Their names were Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, and they came with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The Three Wise Men have been honored in various European countries since the Middle Ages. When the tradition of Santa Claus bringing gifts to children on Christmas Day became popular in some countries centuries ago, Spain followed suit, but used los reyes magos as the gift-bringers instead.
In recent years, some Spanish families have begun to embrace the Santa tradition as well. As a result, some children get gifts on both December 25 and January 6. However, Three Kings Day is easily the more important of the two, and the day when just about everyone in Spain will be in the gift-giving spirit.
Celebrating Three Kings Day in Spain today
January 5: The Three Kings Day parade
Festivities officially start the day before the actual feast day of los reyes magos. On January 5, parades take place throughout the country to celebrate the arrival of the kings. Spanish families line the streets of their hometown to get a glimpse of the cabalgata de los reyes magos, or Three Kings Day parade.
These parades are truly a sight to behold! Along with dancers, musicians, and puppeteers, the Kings ride on camels or elaborate floats. They throw goodies, usually candy or sweets, down to the children. Some adults even get in on the fun and will hold upside-down umbrellas to catch as much candy as possible!
January 6: The arrival of los reyes magos
Los reyes magos traditionally bring gifts for Spanish children during the night on January 5. 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 magos. The kings’ camels also receive dried grass or hay from the traditionalists, or milk and bread if those aren’t handy!
When kids throughout Spain wake up on the morning of the 6th, they find gifts from the Three Kings ready to open. (But only if they’ve been good—just like Santa Claus, los reyes magos bring coal for those on the naughty list!)
Traditional food for Three Kings Day in Spain
Throughout the holiday season, Spanish families enjoy multiple feasts that last for hours. Three Kings Day is no different. After opening the gifts from los reyes magos, it’s time to enjoy an elaborate lunch comprised of multiple courses and plenty of post-meal chatter, known as sobremesa.
A typical Three Kings Day lunch in Spain will likely start with some appetizers such as cheese and cured meats. The main course can vary depending on where you are in the country, but expect something hearty and filling, usually meat or seafood based. Just be sure to save room for dessert: the almighty roscón.
Roscón de Reyes: the Three Kings Day cake
The crown jewel of the los reyes magos celebration is exactly that: a crown-shaped dessert decorated with candy “jewels.” This is the roscón de reyes, a sweet bread-like cake often filled with cream and topped with dried fruits.
The roscón de reyes is notoriously difficult to make at home and takes a long time. As a result, most people outsource theirs to the experts. Starting in the fall, bakeries throughout Spain see thousands of orders for roscones from locals eager to reserve theirs in time.
As for when to eat the roscón, that depends on who you ask. Some families dig into theirs as soon as they get home from the Three Kings Day parade on January 5. Others have it for breakfast on the morning of the 6th, and still others hold off until afternoon on Three Kings Day to have it for merienda, or the midday snack around 6 p.m.
Roscones can come in several different varieties, all of them delicious. Some are plain and come without any filling. Others contain fresh whipped cream, chocolate truffle cream, or even candied spaghetti squash (it’s better than it sounds!).
In addition, you’ll find two plastic-wrapped figurines inside the roscón: a dried fava bean and a small king-shaped figurine.
- Whoever gets the slice of the cake with the small king is the “king” or “queen” of the banquet. As a result, this person will have good luck for the rest of the year. Many roscones come with a paper or cardboard crown for this person to wear.
- On the other hand, whoever finds the fava bean has to pay for the roscón the next year!
If you happen to be in the Spanish capital around Three Kings Day, check out where to try the roscón de reyes in Madrid. Many bakeries and pastry shops will offer it, but these spots are the best of the best!
READ MORE: Behind the Bite: Roscón de Reyes
Even if you can’t make it to Spain this year to celebrate los reyes magos, we here at Devour Tours wish you all a wonderful holiday season!Bring the flavors of Spain into your home this holiday season with our new digital cookbook, Spanish Feasts from the Devour Tours Kitchen. (It makes a great gift, too!)