In the United States, December 25th is a magical day. Children get excited about Christmas and put out milk and cookies for Santa Claus, a jolly old man in a red suit who lives in the north pole, commands a team of reindeer and delivers presents by sliding down chimneys all over the world. In Spain, it’s January 6th that’s of utmost importance and Santa takes backseat to the true bearer of gifts: three kings – Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar – who travel by horses and camels laden with presents for all the boys and girls. And, in anticipation of their arrival, kids lay out their slippers filled with hay or dried grass for the kings’ animals.
David had told me many times about Three Kings Day, but it had never really held much significance for me, for I had yet to experience it for myself – to understand its importance and witness the excitement – until this year. While I had missed Christmas in Spain, it turned out that I had returned in time for a day more revered even than the 25th of December.
The momentum started slowly. The supermarket started stocking piles of king cakes (“Roscon de Reyes”) – a circular brioche cake with a hole in the middle and filled with vanilla or chocolate creams. But the best part is that each and every one is sure to have a trinket hidden somewhere in the cake. The lucky one who finds the treasure is crowned king or queen and can proudly bear the gold, paper crown that comes with the cake. Then, on January 5th, I noticed a barricade on one of Altea’s main streets and wondered if something would be happening later. I found out the answer soon enough when David called me a couple of hours later, telling me to come downtown. Crowds were gathering and David had found out from a policeman that the kings were 20 minutes away! I grabbed my camera and made my way down Altea’s winding streets and found David in front of the city hall where hundreds were in attendance.
Kids lined both sides of the main street with plastic bags open and ready, and I guessed that they must be expecting to fill it with something and I waited to see what that would be. The adults seemed just as excited and I jumped up on a platform to join a group of them who had positioned themselves to see what I guessed must be a parade that would soon be coming down the street. And as the movement and energy swirled around me, I got caught up in the spirit of Three Kings Day even though I had never experienced it before and didn’t even know what to expect.
And then the parade started and groups of children dressed up as shepherds marched by, men on horses dazzled the crowd, floats with candy-bearing women and children threw treats and confetti into the crowds setting the kids with the plastic bags into action, and then the three kings arrived – one after the other – majestic and noble as they waved to the crowd. And, then the fireworks started, exploding in an array of colors right above a bridge, and soon David and I were standing on that bridge so that we could be directly underneath the fireworks as they went off. And I looked up and couldn’t believe how close they were! Surely, it would be illegal in the US to set off fireworks at such close range.
So, when David tells me that he used to set out his slippers and fill up at least half of his bag with candy thanks to the kings and when his mom shares how David once walked in the parade dressed as a shepherd, I can better picture David’s childhood because I have finally experienced Three Kings Day for myself.
Yesterday, as kids opened their presents and enjoyed their last day of vacation and all the stores remained closed in honor of the celebration day, David gave me a present of my own. It was the new Super Mario Bros. game for Wii. And for the first time since arriving in Spain, we plugged in our Wii and started playing. And, while I’m not crazy about video games – not like how I once was, anyhow, when I used to play with my brother well into the night and early into the morning – somehow it seemed like a very appropriate day to sit back, relax and just be a kid.