The Three Wise Men

With some of the holidays—Halloween, Thanksgiving—which have made it across the Atlantic to Spain, I wish that my favorite, the Three Wise Men, would be celebrated in the United States. Yes, here we have the Epiphany on the same day, January 6th, but it’s mostly a religious festivity. What is even sadder is that, since Trump’s insurrection on the same date of 2021, no one is remembering the baby Jesus on that day. I’ve said it before: “Leave it to Trump to ruin the Three Wise Men holiday.” 

In Spain the Three Wise Men bring gifts to the children on the night of January 5th, the twelve day of Christmas. In my family we left hard cider for the kings and straw for the camels in our balcony. How the kings made it to the third floor and much higher to other neighbors’ balconies is just as magical as fat Santa making it down the chimney. That could be the reason why they are also known as the Reyes Magos, the Magi or magical kings.

The Three Kings arrived from different continents: Melchior was from Europe, Caspar from Asia and Balthasar (my king) from Africa. Most Spanish homes set up elaborate Nativity scenes with real grass, fake rivers made out of aluminum foil, the manger, Virgin Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, angels, lambs, donkeys, and the kings, of course. This catafalque stayed up until after the kings had come and gone. We didn’t have one in my home. I knew my parents were not religious, but I have been making up for my adored kings since then. I have three sets of kings: a more formal Spanish one, with golden touches and Melchior kneeling; another with tall, stylized figures holding tight to their biblical gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And my favorite kings, the rustic ones from Oaxaca in vibrant colors and child-like faces carrying no gifts at all.

Another tradition of the Three Wise Men holiday is the cabalgata de Reyes (the Kings’ parade). It’s held in the evening of January 5th through the most important streets of each city with elaborate floats full of presents for the kings, accompanied by musicians, acrobats and dancers. Spanish children, like their parents, stay up late and the parade ends up with fireworks at 10 PM or later. If you don’t want to get caught in awful traffic, you can watch it on YouTube later.

Several years ago, I was in Madrid for Christmas and I forgot all about the cabalgata. On that evening I was going to the Cultural Center on Plaza Colón to see a play, A palo seco (impossible to translate, something like “All on One’s Own”), by Carmen Martín Gaite, one of my favorite authors. It’s one of the few plays she wrote among her many novels, essays, even poems. I was lucky to catch a taxi (it was before Uber), but when the driver heard I wanted to go to the center of the city, he said I would never make it. He would drop me off at the closest Metro entrance and I could figure it out from there. I guess I also forgot what know-it-alls taxi drivers are in Madrid.

This year, here in old Philadelphia, I want to celebrate the Three Wise Men in style, making the traditional Roscón de Reyes (The Kings’ Round Cake) for a New Year’s Evening celebration with friends. Previously I have given dinner parties with that theme, especially if January 6th fell on a weekend, but I’ve never baked the cake before. I think nowadays everyone in Spain buys it in any neighborhood pastry shop, but as you know, I can be out of sync with my own culture. The cake has a similar consistency of brioche or challah bread, topped with candy fruit and nuts. A little figurine is hidden inside and the one who finds it gets to be king for a day or buys the cake the following year, depending in your family’s tradition. I think if you bite into the figurine and don’t break a tooth, you are lucky already. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

However you celebrate the New Year, Have a wonderful 2024, full of peace and joy!



9 Responses to The Three Wise Men

  1. conchaalborg says:

    I like the kings as well and the “gâteau des rois” stuffed with and almond based cream. We had it on January 6th and every Sunday in January, the king or queen providing the cake for the following gathering. No Christmas/ holiday parties before Christmas, all parties were in January “pour fêter le nouvel an”. People visit each other during January to share good wishes, it makes for a more festive heart of the winter!

    How interesting, Cécile, the same tradition in France, but with different aspects.
    Congratulations on your mother’s 100th birthday, amazing! Have a wonderful visit with her and happy New Year! 
    Abrazos, Concha

  2. conchaalborg says:

    Loved your latest blog, Randi.

    Thanks, Randi. I think I finally have the technical situation fixed, Concha

  3. conchaalborg says:

    Hi, Concha –
    Loved this post and wish we could be there with you to celebrate!
    Happy New Year!
    XX, Jean
    Thanks, Jean! Concha

  4. conchaalborg says:

    Wonderful! Happy New Year!!
    XO, J
    Thanks and Happy New Year to you and Tom as well, Concha

  5. conchaalborg says:

    I just showed all the pictures to Manny, our cleaning man, from the Dominican Republic. He was quite pleased that “someone” was educating me. Manny kept saying, “just like us, just like us”
    Love, Cirel

    Love how our traditions overlap, with some differences, of course. Love, Concha

  6. conchaalborg says:

    Me encanta como traduces las palabras, los dichos y las tradiciones españolas al inglés. Me he divertido mucho con los tres reyes y la cabalgata.
    Visto con lenguaje extranjero suenan mucho mas magicas y mas naif nuestras creencias de infancia
    Un abrazo muy grande
    Muchas gracias, Inés. Tienes razón éramos muy inocentes entonces.
    Abrazos, Concha

  7. conchaalborg says:

    I would like to try some of that Three Kings cake.
    Charming. Thanks.

    I made the cake for New Year’s Evening. It looked pretty good and tasted ok. but the consistency was not perfect. I wonder if it was the yeast. I love to cook, but I’m not such a good baker…
    Love, Concha

  8. conchaalborg says:

    I enjoyed reading your news about the three wise men and although my family did not celebrate the three kings, we always left our Christmas decorations in place until after January 6, the Eastern Orthodox Christmas Day.  

    It’s so interesting, Barbara, how many people have written telling me about their traditions. In New Orleans they have a similar cake on January 6. I guess the Epiphany is still celebrated by Christians, Concha

  9. Hi Concha,
    I enjoyed your piece on the three kings and European traditions around them.
    Don’t let Trump spoil the day for you!
    Below is a picture of the three kings and their camel in my living room
    Love, Linda

    Such a beautiful group! Is it made out of china? they look so fancy. (They will so cozy on one camel). I’d love to see them sometime.
    Let’s hope for a good new year, with health and happiness.
    Love, Concha
    P.S. I’ll try to post the photo, I don’t know if I can.