How Three Kings Day Is Celebrated in Spain

Celebrating Birth of Jesus With Gifts

Three King's Day - Spain
Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia / Getty Images

Three Kings Day, or Dia De Los Reyes in Spanish, falls on January 6 every year. It's the day the children of Spain and Hispanic countries receive presents for Christmastime. Much like children from other parts of the world eagerly await Santa Claus on Christmas Eve night, the same can be said on the eve of January 5, when children leave their shoes by the door with hopes that the three kings will leave them gifts in their shoes when they wake the following morning.

The day is also celebrated by eating the roscon de los reyes, or ring-cake of the kings, that is decorated to look like a crown that a king would wear. It is often topped with glazed fruits, representing the jewels on a crown. Buried inside it is a toy, often a figurine of baby Jesus. The person who finds it is said to have good luck for the year.

The Story

In the Christian Bible in the book of Matthew, is the story of a group of travelers who followed a star to the birthplace of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. They gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The three kings according to Christian tradition are also known as the three magi or wise men, depending on the version or translation of the Bible. One of the oldest versions of the Bible was written in Greek. The actual word used to describe the travelers was magos, the plural being magi. At the time, a magos was a priest of Zoasterism, a religion, which was then considered science, that studied the stars and astrology.

The King James Version, an English translation of the Bible dating back to 1604, translates the word magos to mean "wise men."

How did the group of travelers become known as kings? There are a few passages written in Isaiah and Psalms in the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament to Christians, that talk about the Messiah will be worshipped by kings and will be brought gifts by them.

Christmas Day in Spain

Christmas day is a national holiday in Spain. It is not as festively celebrated as in the U.S. or other parts of the world. According to Christian tradition, Christmas Eve was the night that Mary was giving birth to Jesus. It is honored as a special day for the family to come together for a big meal. In Spanish, it is called Nochebuena, meaning "Goodnight." On Christmas day, children may receive a small gift, but the big day for presents is on January 6, Epiphany day, when like the magi delivered gifts to baby Jesus following his birth, the three kings do the same for the children, 12 days after Christmas. 

Three Kings Day Eve

The days leading up to January 5, children are supposed to write letters to the three kings asking them for gifts. The day before Three Kings Day is a day for parades and processions throughout Spanish cities, like Madrid, Barcelona (where the kings arrive by boat), or Alcoy, which has Spain's longest-running parade which began in 1885. The parades represent the journey made by the travelers on camels to Bethlehem. The three kings throw candy into the crowd. Paradegoers bring umbrellas to the parade and turn them upside down to collect the thrown sweets.

How Other Cultures Celebrate

As it is a tradition that has been celebrated in Spain for many centuries, most Spanish-speaking countries in the West celebrate Three Kings Day. In Mexico, for example, a mile-long “Rosca de Reyes” cake is made to celebrate the holiday and over 200,000 people give it a try in Zocalo Square in Mexico City.

In Italy and Greece, the Epiphany is celebrated in different ways. In Italy, stockings are hung by doors. In Greece, swimming competitions have people dive into the water to reach crosses thrown in for retrieval, which represents the baptism of Jesus.

In Germanic countries, like Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, Dreikonigstag is the word for "Three Kings Day." In Ireland, the day is known as Little Christmas.