For most Spaniards the high point of the Christmas season is not December 25; it’s January 6: King’s Day. On January 3, I was talking with an American who had called from Washington, D.C. I mentioned to her the Spanish timeline of celebrating the Christmas season in order to explain why our family was still in “holiday mode.” Naturally, she probably thought this a new concept. To most Americans January 3 would be considered post-holiday. But for Spaniards January 3 is considered crunch time to buy all those last minute gifts for friends and family.
There’s a great scene in the film “A Christmas Story” that helps you understand a little what King’s Day is like in Spain. In that hilarious movie, Ralphie and his family are watching a parade on Christmas Eve in downtown smalltown. Ralphie and his little brother (and hundreds of other kids) are waiting for the big moment: the end of the parade when Santa, the guest of honor, shows up. To an American child, Santa means gifts. To a Spanish child, the Three Kings mean gifts.
December 24 is to an American boy or girl what January 5 is to a Spanish niño o niña. On January 5, there’s always a big parade and the high point is not Santa. The high point is when the Three Kings arrive, bringing gifts not only for the baby Jesus but also for Enrique and Carlos and Maria Jesús.
In different parts of Spain there are other unique customs layered into the gift-giving ritual. Take the province of Cataluña, for example. The Catalans have a character called Caca Tío (literally, “Uncle Crap”) who “poops” gifts for the children. Caca Tío is represented by a large log with a cloth draped over the top that descends to the ground, hiding the secret gifts under a curtain like the Wizard of Oz. To receive a gift, each child needs to beat Caca Tío with a stick while singing a song commanding him to produce a present from his anus. At the end of the song that is just what Caca Tío does, much to the wide-eyed delight of the child. (For some reason the Catalans get into the whole “going to the bathroom” thing at Christmas-time. They even have a special shepherd in their Nativity set that is out back behind the stable “relieving himself.” The Catalans think this is the funniest thing in the world, since they claim this shepherd was the Catalan who missed seeing the baby Jesus because he really had to “go.” But, I digress, back to the Spanish observance of January 6 as a major holiday.)
The final note that should be made about this is a bit sadder: January 6 is becoming a bit diluted by December 25 for the average Spanish child. As far as sheer volume of gift-intake over the Christmas season for the Spanish boy or girl, this phenomenon bodes well, since they most commonly will receive gifts on both Christmas Day and King’s Day nowadays. But this westernization makes me a little depressed. One wonders how this will affect Spanish culture over the long term. I guess only time will tell.
For my part, I quite enjoy the Spanish observance of January 6 as a holiday. There are a few reasons why.
The shallowest reason is because it’s a good day for me and my family to go to the snow-covered mountains just outside Madrid in order to go sledding. Most Spaniards are with their families on King’s Day (just like most Americans are with their families on Christmas day). This means the mountains will be empty and we will have a hill practically all to ourselves to enjoy.
Another reason I think observing King’s Day is a wonderful custom is because it helps retain the long-lost custom of observing “the twelve days of Christmas.” We all know the song (or, rather, sort of know the song) that talks about this. If you’re like me, when you were growing up you may have wondered, “What are the ‘twelve days of Christmas’, anyway?” I had always assumed they were the twelve days before Christmas. But, they’re not: they are the twelve days between Christmas and January 6. And that leads to a third reason why I appreciate the custom of observing King’s Day: it brings resolution to a long-building anticipation...
It reminds me of Epiphany, that “Aha!” moment when all of humanity saw the light and knew this baby was the source of all light, the dispeller of all darkness, the One we have been looking for our whole life. If you belong to a liturgical kind of church, you’ll know that the first sermon of the New Year typically deals with the text of the Three Kings visiting the Christ-child. The Three Kings represent the fact that the good news of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection is not just for a select group of people; it is for everyone. The visit of the Three Kings affirms that, yes, the Jews are God’s chosen people, but so are the Gentiles. The fact that the Three Kings knew to pay homage to the Christ points up the universality of Christianity. Everyone can clearly see that Jesus is unique, Jesus is God, Jesus is the King of the Universe. That’s what you call an Epiphany. Aha! I see the light! We have seen his star! And we have come to worship him! Let’s bring the Christ-child our precious gifts. Let’s follow in the footsteps of the Three Kings and venture out on an arduous journey of faith.