Study Abroad and Cultural Tours Blog

The Epiphany

Extend Your Holiday Season the Spanish Way

23660_517987252850_907642_nEvery sixth of January the Christmas holidays come to a close with the feast of the Epiphany. While in American culture this holiday is essentially nonexistent save as a religious observation, in many other countries it is indeed the trademark of the season. In Spain, it is celebrated as the feast of the Three Kings, and it is of central importance in their festivities.

On this day the arrival of the Three Wise Men to the city of Bethlehem is celebrated. They came from the Orient offering gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn Christ child, and in like fashion this is the day in Spain and many other countries when gifts are exchanged. The holiday is based on the enigmatic characters of the Magi who have little basis in the Bible itself. Regardless of what little we know of them, popular tradition has allowed these characters, like Santa Claus, to grow to be loved across the globe.  Tradition tells us their names were Melchior, Gaspar y Balthazar, and that they represent the three ages of human life. Melchior is an elderly man, while Gaspar is middle aged, and Balthazar a young man; although other theories postulate that they represent different ethnicities.

23660_517987242870_531093_nThe night of the fifth of January is held to be the most magical night of the year in Spanish culture. These Magi mysteriously sneak into homes unseen and leave gifts for the children. The gifts, of course, are the exact ones requested in the letters the kids had written. The correspondence is sent throughout the month of December via the Kings’ pages (assistants), who can be found at local shopping centers and town squares so that each may receive their desired gifts.

There is only one moment in which the royal majesties allow themselves to be seen: the parade. On the eve of the feast there is the most magical of parades where each of the wise men presides over their own float. Young and old alike flock to line the streets in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the Three Kings and grabbing candies thrown from the floats. They also call out one last reminder of their wishes, just in case the card got lost in the mail. That night the children must go to bed early for the Magi to come, though it is perhaps the night in which they sleep least, nervous and excited about the surprises awaiting them the following morning, praying that it not be the dreaded coal!

At last the moment has arrived! Upon waking the children run to the living room still bleary eyed and rush to open their presents.  If they have been good the Three Kings have been generous, and if not too, but they might find a piece of coal mixed in with their gifts though not a charcoal barbeque briquette, an edible delicacy to suit their sweet tooth.

king cakeAfter opening gifts, families enjoy a traditional king’s cake: el Roscón de Reyes. This sweet bread in the shape of a ring symbolizing a crown is topped with candied fruit, almond slices, and pearl sugar. Usually you will find them sliced in half and filled with whipped cream, pastry cream, chocolate cream, or angel’s hair made from the sweetened threads of the Siam pumpkin. The pastry makers hide a figurine in the cakes along with a giant dried bean. The figurine bestows luck on he who finds it and the bean indicates who must pay for the cake! Today many bakeries hide money or even airline tickets in their cakes to attract more people to buy them.

Next year extend your holiday season a little longer and try celebrating the Epiphany the Spanish way. Keep an eye out for a traditional Roscón de Reyes cake recipe coming up on our blog. Or dream big and plan a trip with us to Spain to spend the most magical night of the year watching the Parade of the Three Kings; who knows, maybe they will bring you what your heart desires.

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