Maria Dueñas holds a PhD in English Philology and is currently a professor at the University of Murcia. She has also taught at American universities, is the author of several academic articles, and has participated in various educational, cultural, and editorial projects. She is currently writing her second novel. Here she talks about the Spanish Christmas tradition that replaces Santa: The Three Kings.
Santa Claus was an alien to us. For centuries, the only ones with the official right to give gifts to kids were The Three Wise Men, known in Spain, my country, as Los Tres Reyes Magos. How could an outsider like Santa compete? Celebrations started weeks before the holidays, with every child carefully writing their wishes in a long letter. Our lists would contain as many toys as possible for ourselves along with petitions for peace and wealth for the unfortunate. That’s what they taught us to do in our catholic schools, although we never actually knew if our pledges for others ever materialized, because we were so busy with our toys.
The big day started on the eve of Día de Reyes (Jan 6th). Our parents would take us to see the cheerful parade, la cabalgata, with the Three Wise Men up on their ostentatious floats, dressed in flamboyant outfits in colorful velvet and artificial fur, with golden crowns and silk turbans adorned with feathers, diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Or, at least, that's what those plastic pieces seemed to the eyes of us kids. Generous and extravagant, they threw candy as they smiled behind their huge fake beards. Except for Baltazar, of course, the black king, everybody’s favorite, who didn’t have a beard.
And then, back home, we polished our shoes like crazy before going to bed early, exhausted, overanxious, and impatient for the morning to come. What we received would at most be less than a third of what we asked for, but no one cared. We all enjoyed a happy Día de Reyes, with some toys, hot chocolate and a round cake known as roscón.
That was my childhood and that’s partially my children’s childhood --- about 50%. The remaining percentage was unfortunately taken by the man in red. I reckon it was by the mid-late seventies when he arrived in Spain. And it was another sign that my poor old country was becoming a part of the civilized world. Smiling, snobbish, and overweight, he promised a paradise of foreign sophistication and big money. He tried to get his share of the gift business under the guise of a sweet aging expat. And, to my surprise, people in general accepted the newcomer enthusiastically.
But boundaries had to be drawn: up to Dec 25th, Santa would be free to do whatever he wanted. But afterward, nothing at all. And he would need to change his name: Santa is used in Spanish for sanctified females, not for real men. So “Papa Noel” it was.
Anyway, to my satisfaction, from Christmas day to January 6th the three old kings continue to reign as they always did. Bombastic, ostentatious, a bit older maybe but, definitely, as charismatic as ever.