Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, is quite a recent Christmas tradition. But gift giving began with the very first Christmas, when the Three Kings brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child.
In Spanish tradition, the Three Kings – Los Reyes Magos - are still the gift givers on Christmas Eve, and though Father Christmas has spread his influence in Spain, the charming legend of the Three Kings continues to this day.
The Three Kings do not arrive until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. This is the Twelfth Day of Christmas and marks the end of the celebrations. Like Father Christmas, children can write to the Three Kings and ask for gifts. Spanish stores hire people to dress up as the Three Kings as part of Christmas displays, and nativity scenes, or nacimientos, always include the Kings in royal regalia.
It is customary for village people to go out carrying torches and making a great noise to meet the Three Kings as they arrive with presents for the children, who are told that the Kings have sneaked past when they fail to materialize. But in many bigger towns and cities, a grand procession is held, with the Three Kings arriving on a float, boat or riding donkeys, or even camels, distributing handfuls of candies to the waiting crowds of children. This parade is called the cabalgata.
Instead of hanging out their stockings, children place shoes by their beds for the Kings to fill with candies, nuts and gifts. One of the most loved Christmas candies is a sweet nougat confection called Turron, popular for five centuries.
While little is known of the original Three Kings, legends have grown up around them. In the Bible they are called Magi, or Wise Men, astronomer priests who plotted their course by the stars to the birthplace of Christ. They receive only the briefest mention in the Bible, and that does not include their names. It was only presumed there were actually three of them, because they brought three gifts.
But somehow these mysterious visitors to Christ’s crib took hold in the public imagination. By the Eighth Century, they were named Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar. Melchior is traditionally the oldest of the three, a seer old man with white hair and a long white beard. Gaspar (also known as Casper) is younger, with dark hair and beard, or sometimes clean shaven, and Balthazar is always depicted as a black man, King of Ethiopia.
The three gifts they brought to the Christ Child have many interpretations. The simplest one is that all three – gold, frankincense and myrrh – were precious substances, suitable gifts for the babe who would become the King of Kings. But they also have more abstract meanings.
Melchior brought the gold, which later came to be associated with the purity of Christ’s love; Gaspar brought frankincense, later associated with the incense burners in church ritual; and Balthazar brought myrrh, a bitter substance used in embalming, which came to be associated with the Passion of the Christ.
Legend tells that the Three Kings later helped spread the Word of Christ, and that today their remains are buried in Cologne Cathedral. The Shrine of the Three Kings is a magnificent gold sarcophagus, but whether it actually contains the bones of Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar is a moot point.
Nor does it really matter, because they continue to live on and bring joy to small children all over Spain.
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