Los Tres Reyes Magos / The Three Wise Men
Updated: Apr 15, 2020
¡Hola y bienvenid@s a mi tercer blog! Hello and welcome to my third blog! Not that I am counting!
I hope you have had a great Christmas. I thoroughly enjoyed myself this year and I'm finding it hard to snap out of the Christmas spirit, so I have decided to prolong it a little and tell you about one of my favourite Spanish Christmas traditions: The Three Wise Men. I just love everything about it, the anticipation and preparations beforehand, the children's excitement, the magic atmosphere, the cold air, the buzz in the streets and shops, the parade, the sweets, the presents and the "Roscón de Reyes", a sweet bread you dip in thick hot steaming chocolate.
We celebrate the Three Kings (Los Tres Reyes Magos) on the 6th of January which is a bank holiday in Spain. Spanish children receive their presents when they wake up that morning and it is the Three Wise Men who bring them. The tradition of Father Christmas is now creeping into Spain and many children also get gifts from him, but the Three Kings are still going strong!
At some point before the 6th of January children in Spain will write a letter to the Three Kings, very similar to the ones children do here for Santa and then post it to them. The children will tell them how good they have been and what they would like. And you must be good to get presents, otherwise you risk getting a bag full of coal. You can get sweet coal in the cake shops... and I warn you, it is very sweet, I have tried it. I know my brothers got it occasionally and I have conveniently forgotten if I ever did!!!
Here is a link for a printable template of a letter to the Three Kings. If you are a teacher it can be a fun activity to do before Xmas with your students to practise their writing and if you are a parent you can get your children to write to the Three Kings and see if they come to your house, don't forget to put your shoes out, though! https://www.silocreativo.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Carta-Reyes-Magos-Silo-Creativo.pdf
Similarly to here, children can go to stores or shopping centres and sit on the lap of one of the Kings, have a chat with them, tell them you have been good or if you haven't, explain that you will be much better behaved from now on and then ask them for that very special gift you would like.
One year my nephews decided to paint their bedroom walls with indelible ink markers and were terrified of going to see the Three Kings. They did finally go and apologised and I think they did get some presents that year...maybe one of them was a brush and paint!
The 5th of January: The parade
On the evening of the 5th of January there is always a parade. In small towns there is just one but in big cities such as Madrid there is a main one in the centre and they will do others in the surrounding villages and suburbs. The parade is always bursting with excitement and crowds of delighted children and adults. The little ones will sit on their parents' shoulders to ensure they don't miss a thing.
A variety of floats and music bands will go by with all different types of popular characters and the bands will be playing all sorts of music. It is a community event and there will be representatives from clubs, associations, the Town Hall, etc. And most importantly of all, who everyone is really waiting to see and who usually arrive at the end are the Three Wise Men, Melchor, Gaspar and Balthasar. Their floats will sometimes have mountains of presents or letters from the children. When I was little I remember one year they arrived on camels!!!! Another time they arrived on horseback!!! And another year they arrived on a train and we went to the train station to see them!!! And of course, we all have our favourite king. Mine is Balthasar.
I must not forget to say that everyone from the floats throw sweets to the crowds. Both children and adults will run to collect them. This year we filled all our pockets and a hat up to the brim with sweets, there are so many I think it is impossible to eat them all. There are risks involved, though, as my daughter could tell you, she got hit about four times on the head by very enthusiastic children who were in charge of throwing the sweets from the floats. Adults were more careful throwing them to the floor or up into the air. Anyway, she was fine, nothing sucking on a sweet won't cure.
I have found a wonderful clip of this year's (2019) parade in Soria (the city I grew up in) and it completely captures the essence of this event. Here is the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uK4SO-Um9uM
Once the very excited children, high on sugar after gobbling up as many sweets as they can manage, get home, it is time to leave their shoes out so that the Three Kings will leave presents for each person next to their shoes. They will also prepare water and food for the camels, we leave carrots for them and a nice drink, normally alcoholic, and a snack for the Three Kings, many houses leave out "turrón", a typical Christmas sweet. And then the most difficult task of all, to get to sleep early so that the Three Kings will come, as they will not stop by unless the children are fast asleep.
The 6th of January
On the morning of the 6th of January the presents will be waiting, next to each person's shoes. Finally the gifts have arrived! But there are more lovely things yet to come. Many families will have Roscón de Reyes with hot chocolate for breakfast. It is a delicious sweet bread made with flour, milk, eggs, sugar, orange and lemon rind and the magic ingredient that gives it its aromatic and unusual flavour, orange blossom water. It is shaped as a ring to represent the wealth of the Three Kings and it's covered by sugar, almonds and candied fruit. Inside it will have a hidden surprise, normally a little ceramic figurine and a bean. The person who gets the figure becomes the king or queen for the day and whoever gets the bean must pay for the Roscón. It is so much fun! My daughters think it's wonderful and if we don't go to Spain I bake my own.
There are plenty of recipes out there, I have found this one in English that looks good and it has a video http://www.thebreadkitchen.com/recipes/roscon-de-reyes-recipe/. Here is another one in Spanish, also with a video https://www.pequerecetas.com/receta/receta-de-roscon-de-reyes-casero-paso-a-paso/
The origin of this tradition stems from Saint Matthew's Gospel where it speaks of some wise men who followed a star searching for the king of the Jews and presented him with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Their number, names, nationality and race were established over the centuries. And finally it was in the XIX century when the tradition began in Spain.
Follow this link to find further information in English about the Three Wise Men https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_Magi
You can find more information in Spanish about the origin and story of the Three Wise Men on this link https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reyes_Magos
Growing up in Spain I remember that we used to put on Nativity plays. I never managed to get the part of Mary but I played a pretty decent shepherdess. I have witnessed similar traditions in this country through my daughters' school and I have to say they have never played Mary either. They have been stars, angels, inn keepers, shepherds (Yeah! It must run in the family) and one of the Three Wise Men, a pretty energetic one, in fact, riding an unruly imaginary horse up and down the church.
I now have my own Nativity play in Spanish that I tour to schools before Christmas and I finally get to be Mary...and many other characters too. But not the Three Wise Men, that pleasure is left for the audience to enjoy.
You can find more information about the show on this link https://www.acuerpo.co.uk/xmas-show
Other Christmas activities you can do with children
Cards: See photos below for an example. You can add many other things to it, such as gifts, more colours, glitter, beads, feathers for Balthasar...You basically cut circles to make the heads, cut triangles to make the bodies and you can cut squares or rectangles to make the gifts. You can take this opportunity to talk about what the shapes are called in Spanish (Circle "círculo", triangle "triángulo", square "cuadrado" and rectangle "rectángulo"). And write your message inside, "Feliz Navidad" means Happy Christmas.
Sing Spanish Christmas Carols: One of my favourite ones that talks about the Three Kings is "Ya viene la vieja" (here is the link to the music with lyrics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viB9LeL9gIg) and another that talks about the Three Wise Men and that I have included in my Nativity performance, "La Primera Navidad" (The First Xmas) is called "Ya vienen los Reyes Magos" (This link will take you to a Youtube video with subtitles of the words in Spanish https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8Z6BEUfrJs)
Have your own Three Kings Parade: You can dress up and throw sweets!!!! Just be careful not to hit anyone, though! Because they do hurt!
Make your own "Roscón de Reyes", just follow the above recipes. It is delicious and so much fun. I went into my daughters' school one year and years 1 and 2 baked it. The children loved the surprise and the bean. Remember to use something that won't melt as a surprise, ideally ceramic, I used metal once, well wrapped in tinfoil so that you don't bite into it without seeing it. Wrap the bean too in tinfoil. The only ingredient that is difficult to find is the orange blossom water, I think I found it in Sainbury's one year. I have used quick yeast in the past instead of fresh yeast and it worked well too.
And all that is left is to tell you my version of the story of the Three Kings:
Once Upon a time, many, many centuries ago, in a far away land, there were three wise men called Melchor, Gaspar and Balthasar. Three knowledgeable men of science who studied the skies, the alignment of the stars, searching for answers. One day a beautiful star, like no other they had ever seen before, appeared before them, taunting them to follow it.
Mesmerised by its beauty and sure of its good omen they pursued it across countries, deserts, mountains and rivers, for they knew a new king of the Jews was to be born and this star would take them to him. To pay homage to this new king they bore valuable and symbolic gifts fit for a king, a deity and a martyr: Gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The star took them to Jerusalem where they met old king Herod and inquired about the whereabouts of the baby they wished to worship. Herod had heard about the birth of this new king and felt threatened by it, so he cunningly told them to come back once they had found the baby, as he too wanted to worship him, but his intention was to kill him once he knew where he was.
The Three Wise Men finally arrived at a little stable in Bethlehem with the beautiful star shining above it, and there was the new-born king, nice and rosy, all tucked up warm in the straw. They presented their gifts and worshipped him. After such a long journey they fell asleep. In their sleep an angel warned them not to go back to Jerusalem but to return home a different way. And that is what they did.
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