January 6, 2012

Los Reyes Magos, and then Rebajas: The Three Kings, a Day of Gift-Giving in Spain

Today is el Día de los Reyes (the Day of the Magi Kings) in Spain, a.k.a. la Adoración de los Magos (the Adoration of the Wise Men), a.k.a. El Día de la Epifanía (the Day of Epiphany), a national holiday and the country's traditional equivalent to Christmas in the U.S., that is the day kids open gifts here. Today the three wise men kings, Melchior ("Melchor"), Caspar ("Gaspar"), and Balthasar ("Baltasar"), bring their gifts to all the kids throughout Spain much the way Santa brings them to kids in the UK and U.S. on the 25th of December.

For a laugh, I recommend
"Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" (2010),
a Finnish movie about the "real story"
behind Santa Clause.
From a Christian point of view, Reyes makes much more sense than Christmas as a day of gift-giving. Today, the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, is the day that, according to the Bible, the three wise men, a.k.a. los reyes magos, arrived to the little town of Bethlehem, a.k.a. Belén, bringing the newborn baby Christ gifts from the Orient… specifically gold (gimme!), frankincense (an incense), and myrrh (an embalming oil and symbol of death… kinda morbid gift, huh?). Compare that to a story about a jolly ol' elf who lives in the North Pole, flies around with magical reindeer (some of whom have glowing red noses), cavorts with other elves, and who spies on children (to know if they are naughty or nice) in order to decide whether to give them candy and sweets and tooth cavities or a lump of coal.

The Three Kings offering Christ their gifts in Valencia's Townhall belén

I'll confess that, before moving to Spain, the only time I ever thought about
the Three Kings was when singing this Christmas carol ("villancico"),
"We Three Kings," 
and usually then the parody version.

I'd say that, in practice, Spaniards are split about 50/50 on those who gift-give on Christmas and those who do so on Reyes. (Of course, _everyone_ celebrates _both_ days, both of which are national holidays and important family meal days.) Historically and traditionally, however, Reyes is _the_ important holiday on this gift-giving front. So traditionalists and maybe the more religiously-inclined lean towards Reyes. But non-christians and pragmatists often lean towards Christmas. Let's face it. Giving your kids gifts on January 6th, and then having them go to school often the very next day is a bit of a killjoy. A lot of parents thus choose to give gifts on December 25th so that their kids have the entire holiday break to play with them. (While there's no official war between Christmas and Reyes, Papa Noel and Los Reyes, it makes for an interesting question to poll your Spanish friends: which way do you swing?) 

If you are looking for a Bad Santa (2003) style comedy about Reyes,
you might enjoy Noche de reyes (2001), starring Elsa Pataky among others,
and which, if I remember correctly, even has a hilarious scene where
some guys dressed up as the Three Kings beat up a Santa Claus.

Much like I mentioned earlier with Santa, you can see the Three Kings climbing
Spanish balconies in their quest to bring kids their gifts for the holidays.

Reyes has picked up all the accoutrements of Christmas, what with the competition and opportunity for marketing. Kids write letters to the Reyes. Some people playfully move the Three Kings pieces of their home belén the days leading up to Reyes, to simulate the journey of the kings closer to Christ's crib. It can be cute to watch the RTVE news people play along the week leading up, talking as if the Kings are real while practically winking at their audience. (This morning on the national radio they were interviewing different kids across the country about what the Reyes brought them, which was pretty cute.) The night of the 5th, kids might leave drinks (e.g. wine) for the Three Kings and something extra (milk or bread) for the camels, much like American kids would leave cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. And kids open gifts morning of the 6th. They might find carbón (coal) if they've been a bad kid… but here it's a sweet, carbón dulce! There will be a family lunch, and following it parents will bring out the roscón de reyes, a round donut shaped cake with candied fruit ("escarchada") on top, often filled with a cream or "caballo de ángel" (Angel's hair jam) and surprises hidden underneath. (A lot of families have the roscón in the morning for breakfast.) Whoever gets the slice with the "haba" bean buys the cake next year, whoever gets the king or figurine is king or queen for the day. (Thus, roscones are usually sold in hornos with a paper crown.)

What a typical roscón looks like

Last year my mother-in-law got the figurine (a hippo) and my father-in-law the haba.

One thing that has fascinated me as an outsider is Balthasar, the, by popular tradition, black king. Spain has only very recently experienced a surge in immigration, and with it an increase in the number of Africans who now make up its 21st-century population and look. So finding this African face among its traditional holiday images is kind of intriguing. Now I don't want to start any big arguments about this, and I definitely don't want to insinuate any racial politics into what is effectively a happy, friendly, family, and all-around positive time of the year… but I can't help but share with you my early and initial mild shock at the use of blackface by white Spaniards dressing as Balthasar. Until recently this was a common practice in Spain, and for that matter it is still quite common in a lot of places here. For you Spanish readers: in the U.S., the use of blackface is _heavily_ associated with racism, since it was commonly used to play the "happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation" and other such slavery and segregation era stereotypes. Such is the stigma that Robert Downey Jr.'s clearly comical parody of its use in Tropic Thunder (2008), still managed to receive criticism for making light of the subject. In Spain not so much. I don't think anyone would see any harm in a Spaniard "dressing up" as Balthasar with blackface. So this is definitely a cultural difference to keep in mind. 

American actor Robert Downey Jr. in blackface for Tropic Thunder (2008)

An example of Balthasar-by-means-of-blackface in Spain,
all in good fun and not remotely intended to be offensive.

However, the figure of Balthasar today has also become an almost irresistible opportunity for improving race-relations and Spanish attitudes about sub-Saharan immigrants in Spain. Subsaharan immigrants are increasingly invited to play the part of Balthasar in official Reyes visits to elementary schools or in the arab tents ("la jaima") where kids go to make official requests of the Three Kings, or at the official Three Kings parades ("cabalgatas"). While I don't want to knock any Spaniards out there who still rely on blackface to play Balthasar, my personal hope is that Spain will embrace this growing population of new Spaniards of African origin by further incorporating them into what is a model of multiculturalism: three wise men of the Middle East Orient, each of different kingdoms and of an exotic—Zoroastrian—faith, coming to offer their congratulations to a family of migrant workers persecuted for its innovative religious beliefs.

¡Felices Reyes!

A "jaima" with lines of kids eager to speak with the Three Kings (all played by subsaharan immigrants),
set up by Valencia's Bioparc this year in the Parque de Parterre next to the El Corte Inglés Colón location.

Postscript: Did you not get what you wanted for Christmas Reyes? Have no worries! Tomorrow, January 7th, is the start of Rebajas season. Rebajas are a strictly regulated affair in Spain. Discounts have to be for a certain minimum amount, and covering a certain percentage of store products. And they can only take place on specified dates. January (and now much of February) is _the_ big Rebajas season, and this year there's talk of discounts of more than 50% off. So it's not quite as great a deal as gifts from wise men, but I'll be out there shopping for those things Santa and the Three Kings forgot to get me.


Mr Grumpy said...

One of my best mates here in Spain is Black and gets sick and tired of being chased through the streets of village by kids chanting 'Balthazar, Balthazar !' as early as November. He can't leave the house on the 5th of January for fear of being dragged onto a processional float as the honorary Village Black Guy

An American Spaniard said...

Once again, you've got me in stitches. (No false advertising in your name, eh?) Though your friend has a point. Not everyone wants to be Mr. Representative for Racial Identities. Where's United Colors of Benetton when you need them? (I'm still waiting for the PC police to fine me on some racial stereotyping technicality.) But I wonder whether you can truly understand the utter astonishment blackface causes an American like me. My wife even commented to me today, "You guys even have a specific word for it!"

Sorokin said...

I have been told that in Alcoy, close to Valencia takes place the oldest King's parade in Spain. Apparently all parents take their gifts to the Town Hall, with thier addresses on them, of course, and the kings really go house by house placing the gifts on children's shoes. No surprise that Alcoy's children believe in the Reyes Magos until being almost teens.

Mr Grumpy said...

For years I managed to avoid the parade, but now my daughter is old enough to 'enjoy' it I am forced to spend the everning of the 5th of Jan picking boiled sweets from Horseshit

An American Spaniard said...

Sorokin, that's interesting. If true, I'm not sure if it is adorable or diabolical in how it fools the kids. It would give a new meaning to the American Christmas carol classic, "I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus," that is the Three Kings.

Mr. Grumpy, sigh. It's these little indignities that make parenthood so priceless.

Kaley [Y Mucho Más] said...

I find the blackface thing disturbing. However, I've learned not just assume racism, as it's not nearly as stigmatized in Spain. Nonetheless, I don't really think I'd endorse it. Ever.

An American Spaniard said...

Kaley, I chalk this one up as one of those irresolvable cultural confusions. Kind of like the cultural equivalent of "false friends" in language. Another example might be Americans' discomfort with images of the Seville penitent outfits in Semana Santa:


Anonymous said...

Congrats on getting mentioned in El Pais! way to go http://smoda.elpais.com/articulos/que-pasa-con-baltasar-por-que-la-costumbre-de-pintar-de-negro-a-uno-de-los-reyes-magos-se-resiste-a-morir/5759

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