Three Kings Day, or Dia de los Reyes in Spanish, falls on January 6 every year. It's the day that most children in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries receive their Christmas presents.
Children from other parts of the world eagerly await Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Here in Spain, though, the jolly bearded man takes a backseat to the three kings of biblical lore. On the eve of January 5, children leave their shoes by the door with hopes that the three kings will leave gifts inside during their overnight visit.
Another essential part of Three Kings Day in Spain is the roscon de reyes, or kings' cake. The ring-shaped pastry is decorated to look like a crown that a king would wear. It is often topped with glazed fruits, representing the colorful jewels on a crown. Buried inside it is a toy, often a figurine of baby Jesus or a tiny king. The person who finds it in their piece is said to have good luck for the year.
In the Christian Bible in the book of Matthew, there's a story of a group of traveling kings who followed a star to the birthplace of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. They gave the newborn baby 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 Zoroastrianism, a religion that studies the stars and astrology and which was considered a form of science at the time.
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 how kings will worship and bring gifts to the Messiah.
Christmas Day in Spain
Christmas Day is a national holiday in Spain, but despite the country's strong Catholicism, the day itself is not as big of a deal as in other parts of the world. Instead, Christmas Eve is when most families gather and celebrate, with the 25th itself hosting more low-key get-togethers.
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, this night is called Nochebuena, literally meaning "Good night."
On Christmas Day, children may receive a small gift or two, but the big day for presents is on January 6, or Epiphany. Just as the magi delivered gifts to baby Jesus following his birth, the three kings do the same for the children of Spain 12 days after Christmas.
Three Kings Day Eve
In the days leading up to January 5, children write letters to the Three Kings asking them for gifts. The day before Three Kings Day is a day for parades and processions throughout Spain. The young and young-at-heart alike line the streets of Madrid, Barcelona (where the kings arrive by boat), Alcoy (which hosts Spain's longest-running parade, dating back to 1885) and more, all eager to get a glimpse of the kings. The parades represent the journey made by the travelers on camels to Bethlehem. The Three Kings throw candy into the crowd, which is full of eager paradegoers holding upside-down umbrellas to try and catch as many sweets as possible.
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 also celebrate Three Kings Day. In Mexico, for example, a mile-long “Rosca de Reyes” cake is made to celebrate the holiday. More than 200,000 people give it a try in Zocalo Square in Mexico City.
The fun isn't just limited to Spanish-speaking cultures. In Italy and Greece, the Epiphany is celebrated in different ways. In Italy, stockings are hung by doors for the kings to put presents in. 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.