Christmas is a joyful time of the year, no matter where you are. Within the western world, traditions are pretty similar all over, with their subtle differences here and there.
For many, the highlight of the festive season is Christmas Day, on the 25th of December, in which the family gathers together and children get to open their presents from Santa Claus. Right?
Well, not quite everywhere. In Spain, there is another tradition that takes center stage and that happens on a different day: el dia de Los Reyes Magos. Or translated the Three Kings’ day.
This is a tradition unique to Spain (although some places in Latin America also celebrate it!) and it happens every year on the 6th of January.
This is actually when most children in Spain get their presents and it also marks the end of the festive season as a whole.
But…what exactly is el Dia de Los Reyes Magos? Where does it come from? And what do Spanish people do or celebrate on this day?
Don’t worry, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about the three Kings of Spain and this magical Christmas tradition. Let’s get right into it!
When Is El Dia De Los Reyes Magos Celebrated?
As we have already mentioned, el dia de Los Reyes Magos takes place on the 6th of January.
The event, as a whole, is celebrated in two parts: the eve of Three Kings, which takes place during the 5th of January, and the actual Three Kings’ Day which is celebrated all through the 6th of January.
Where Does El Dia De Los Reyes Magos Come From?
El dia de Los Reyes Magos is a Christmas celebration unique to Spain and to some countries in Latin America that keep up with Spanish traditions.
So, seeing as it is something that doesn’t really happen anywhere else, you might be wondering where it comes from, and what the reason behind it is.
To put it briefly, this tradition comes from the Bible. One of the first things that you need to know about Spain, is that it has a huge Catholic tradition within its history, that has become a part of its innate culture.
Many important festivities and events within Spain come from Catholic traditions and even those that don’t follow the religion partake in them because they have become a cultural phenomenon!
With the Three Kings’ Day, the event stems from the New Testament and what it narrates about the birth of Jesus. In the bible, it states that three kings of the East, also called the three wise men of the east, visited Jesus upon his birth.
They traveled from the furthest confines of the Earth, following a star that guided them. When they reached Jesus, in Bethlehem, they each presented him with a gift to recognize him as the divine son of God.
King Melchor brought gold, to symbolize that Jesus was born to be king himself. King Gaspar brought incense, to symbolize that Jesus was the son of God.
And, King Balthasar brought myrrh, which was typically used to anoint the dead, a premonition of the resurrection of Christ.
So basically, the three kings are the three wise men that came from the far East on their camels, following the star of Bethlehem that guided them to Jesus upon his birth. It’s a pretty big deal in the bible.
Therefore, Spain wanted to commemorate this by marking the occasion as a special holiday by the Spanish government in 1885!
The Three Kings is a beloved tradition within Spanish culture and the three Kings bring gifts to all the children, in memory of the gifts they once brought to Jesus (although these gifts tend to be toys, rather than gold, incense, or myrrh!)
And the occasion is also marked by a parade, which is the longest ongoing parade in Spain!
Much like with Santa Claus, children in Spain prepare their homes on the eve of the 5th of January, leaving snacks for the three kings (and for their camels!).
And then, on the 6th of January, children all over Spain will wake to find their homes full of presents and the entire family gathers to celebrate the occasion.
What Happens During El Dia De Los Reyes Magos?
Okay, so we know when el Dia de Los Reyes Magos takes place, and we know where it comes from, or in other words, the origin of it.
So now it’s time to get into what actually happens during this particular festivity and what the specific traditions are!
There are many things that are done to abide by the tradition, so to make it a little easier, we will divide it into things that are done on the eve of the 5th of January and things that happen on the actual day of Los Reyes Magos, on the 6th of January.
What Happens on the 5th of January (the Eve of Three Kings’ Day)
Although el Dia de Los Reyes Magos is on the 6th of January, many of the traditions take place on the 5th, the day before, as a form of preparation, and as a way of welcoming the kings into the country.
The main event is a huge parade in honor of the three wise men, which is something that takes place in every major city and town. All around the country, councils will organize the parade, year after year, so that everyone may attend it.
The parade symbolizes the arrival of the Kings to the country, in preparation for them to go around leaving gifts during that night.
Quite often, schools, companies, organizations, and similar, will all get involved in the parades, along with an army of volunteers.
Every year the parade is given a theme and multitudes of caravans, carriages, trucks, and cars are decorated for the parade.
There will also be performers in the parade, so it is quite the event! People will flock to the location of the parade sometime in advance to snag a good view.
The parade itself can have all sorts of elements, depending on how it is organized, and where in Spain you are. But the main elements of the parade are as follows:
- The Court of Melchor, followed by King Melchor himself
- The Court of Gaspar, followed by King Gaspar himself
- The Court of Balthasar, followed by King Balthasar himself
- An entourage of performers and people (there will usually also be marching bands and drums)
- In the end, representatives of the devil (Satan), making lumps of coal for all the children that have been naughty (as a symbol of going to Hell)
It is also worth saying that a popular tradition is for the different performers and participants of the parade, along with the three Kings themselves, to throw out candy for the children watching!
So at times, it can become quite a chaotic event, with children rushing to catch as much candy as they can!
Also, there is sometimes a carriage collecting late letters, for children that have failed to send their Three Kings letter beforehand (in which they write down what gifts they would like to receive, similar to the letter you would write to Santa Claus).
After the parade, families will usually spend some time walking around the city, enjoying the Christmas lights, and snacking on the candy they collected. It is a wonderful evening in which everything is full of life and cheer!
Once people get back home, it is time for them to prepare for the Three Kings. Traditionally, people will watch Christmas movies and have a special meal, although this isn’t vital.
The most important tradition is placing your shoes out, under the Christmas tree.
The shoes work in a similar way to Christmas stockings. Each member of the family must choose one shoe and then they are all placed under the Christmas tree, nice and aligned.
This is so that the Three Kings can count how many people are in the house and it also helps them know what ages everyone is!
The shoes will also be filled with small gifts and snacks, just like a stocking would, so many children choose to place out their biggest possible shoe!
Next, most families will prepare some refreshments for the Three Kings, since they will be working really hard trying to go through all the houses in Spain in a single night!
You must place three plates and three drinks, one for each King and, if you want, you can also leave something out for the camels! Many people choose to leave a bowl of water out on the terrace, balcony, or by the window.
Once everything is ready, it’s time to go to sleep. (Although parents will stay up to secretly arrange the gifts “from the Three Kings”). Basically, it’s very similar to Christmas Eve, for those that celebrate Santa Claus, but timed by three!
What Happens On The 6th of January (el Dia de Los Reyes Magos)
The morning of the 6th of January is always a morning of great excitement throughout Spain. Children everywhere will wake up and rush to their living room, to check whether the Three Kings have left any gifts for them or not.
This is also an official festive day in Spain, so everything is closed down. It is a day that is meant to be spent with family at home, celebrating the festive occasion.
Traditionally, the morning is spent opening gifts and listening to Christmas music, as well as playing games, watching movies, and just having a nice time overall. Then, when it’s time for lunch, families will gather for some special food.
A big highlight of the day is eating el Roscon de Reyes Magos. This is a special Spanish cake that can be eaten either for breakfast or after lunch, on the 6th of January, as a celebration of the day.
It is essentially a round or oval-shaped cake that has a hole in the middle (kind of like a giant donut). It has a sweet cream filling and often features candied fruit on the top.
It most often will be made to look like a crown with jewels, to represent the kings. But that’s not what makes it special.
The cake has a few hidden secrets inside.
When serving el Roscon de Reyes, it is sliced up in even parts and shared around the table. Then, there is a popular saying:
“En el roscón hay muy bien ocultas un haba y una figura: el que lo vaya a cortar hágalo sin travesura. Quien en la boca se encuentre una cosa un tanto dura a lo peor es el haba o a lo mejor la figura. Si es el haba lo encontrado, este postre pagarás más si ello es la figura, coronado y Rey serás.”
Summarized, the saying translates into an explanation that states that whoever cuts up the cake, should do so without mischief. Inside the cake, there are hidden two figures, and if you feel something hard in your mouth, it will either be the figure, or the bean.
If you get the bean, you must pay for the cake, and if you get the figure, you become the King.
So basically, there is a small bean and a small figure (usually a King) hidden inside the cake. Most often these are made either out of some form of hard plastic, or ceramic.
But essentially, you have to be careful when taking a bite, because nobody knows in which slice they are hidden!
And as the saying says, traditionally the person who gets the bean must pay for the price of the cake, and the person who gets the figure becomes King. They are then crowned with a paper crown!
Nowadays there are many variations to this tradition, with plenty of other figures that are hidden in the cake, signifying other things. You can also get themed cakes, with specific types of figures!
For the rest of the day, people are left to enjoy their gifts, making the most of their free time because this marks the end of the Christmas festivities.
We covered quite a bit of information, but to sum it up, el dia de Los Reyes Magos is a unique Christmas festivity in Spain that commemorates the arrival of the three wise men.
In the bible, these three wise men were Kings from the far East, who traveled on their camels, following the star of Bethlehem, to visit baby Jesus and provide him with some gifts.
In Spain, the day is now a tradition in which the Three Kings visit the country, going around all the houses to leave gifts for everyone (similar to Santa Claus).
A huge parade takes place on the 5th of January, to welcome them to Spain, and the proper Three Kings’ Day is then celebrated on the 6th of January, with the opening of gifts and a special dessert.