On the night of the 5th of January, the Eve of Twelfth Night, the Three Kings arrive from the east, bearing gifts. For Spanish children, this is a far more important night than Christmas Eve. Indeed, Santa Claus has only recently begun to bring one or two small gifts to Spanish children, leaving most of the gift-giving to his Eastern colleagues, the Three Kings. Every Spanish child knows their names – Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior – and their images grace everything from town centre nativity scenes to household Christmas decorations. Outside some homes one sees decorative Santa Clauses climbing up balconies and outside others are the Three Kings doing likewise. Special cakes are baked and eaten in their honour and the 6th of January, the Catholic Feast of the Epiphany, is a Spanish public holiday.
Julian and Lily attended the Three Kings procession in Aguadulce on the 5th of January last year and came home with great reports, and everyone who has been to the procession in Sanlúcar in previous years assured us it wasn’t to be missed.
Our departure from Carina, at anchor in the river a couple of hundred metres south of town, was delayed by a sudden heavy downpour of rain, but I hoped the rain would also delay the start of the procession. It was with slightly damp bums that we disembarked the dinghy on the Sanlúcar pontoon and made our way up and over the hill and down towards the school, following all the other townsfolk who were doing the same.
In the distance, on the road leading down from the ancient fortification on the top of the hill, we saw the first light. They were (obviously!) coming from the east and as more and more lights joined the procession some of the more impatient among us wondered aloud how long it would take them to get from all the way up there down to the village.
But they were surprisingly quick and within twenty minutes they were coming along the street towards us. First came a local teenage girl (who seems to be the star of everything this Christmas), dressed in long white flowing robes, wearing a long white wig and riding on a white horse. She was followed by each of the Three Kings in turn, each with his own entourage. The Kings – one white, one black, one ginger, all with their faces painted and long curly wigs and beards in those colours – rode horses and threw handfuls of boiled sweets into the crowd. Children and adults scrambled to pick the sweets from the street. All the children – Lily and Katie included – had brought along bags or baskets for the purpose.
As the procession passed we followed after it, picking up sweets all along the route as we walked up to the Catholic church on the top of the hill. There the Three Kings and the lady dismounted their horses and, with their entourages, entered the church one group at a time, through a guard of white clad men. They all bowed in front of the Nativity on the church altar.
This was no ordinary Nativity. It was a living crib – with a nine or ten month old baby playing Jesus, bouncing on the knee of a girl aged about 12 years old who played Mary. Joseph was there too, of course, and angels and shepherds. I was told of the presence of a real lamb in years gone by, but there was none this year. The choir sang five or six lively carols, the priest said a few words and then the Kings and their entourages departed the church backwards, bowing all the while to the baby Jesus.
Back on their horses again they made their way down to the town hall, and we all followed. More sweets were thrown and I had to duck a few times for fear my glasses would get broken by the ferocity of the raining sweets.
The Three Kings and the lady in white seated themselves in front of the town hall and as the names of all the towns children were called out over tanoy, they went up one by one to receive their presents from the Kings. I explained to Lily and Katie that they’d received their presents from Santa already, but they didn’t seem in the slightest bit bothered, so busy were they foraging boiled sweets from the streets.
Children came away carrying wrapped parcels containing dolls, football boots, cars, games. Two small boys rode away on pedal quad bikes! It was an incredible spectacle and the list of Marie-Carmens, Alejandros, Desirees and Cristobals seemed never ending.
The next day, curiosity getting the better of me, I took out the kitchen scales and weighed the two bags of sweets Lily and Katie had collected. Given that we had all munched or sucked our way through a load of them already, Katie’s bag weighed exactly 1kg and Lily’s 1.2kg. That’s some load of sugar. The dentists of Spain must rub their hands in glee at all the business racked up thanks to the Three Kings.