Wednesday, January 12, 2005


My recent bout of less-than-prolific blogging is due, in part, to the demands of Spain’s marathon holiday season. Sure…we don’t celebrate Halloween or Thanksgiving, but we quickly make-up lost ground in December/January. We celebrate Constitution Day on December 6, Immaculate Conception Day on December 8, Christmas, New Year and, finally, Three Wise Men’s Day on January 6. It’s the last of these holidays that puts Spanish children into a frenzy.

For those of you who slept through Sunday school (and/or Monty Python’s Life of Brian), the Three Wise Men (a.k.a., Los Reyes Magos) are the guys who followed the North Star to Jesus’s (and/or Brian’s) manger in Bethlehem. US children will be shocked to discover that they actually have names: Gaspar, Melchor and Baltasar.

Promptly after post-New Year hangovers have been quelled, Spain goes into a week-long Three Wise Men fever pitch. Children write them letters listing—in comprehensive fashion—the toys that they want to receive. Then they go to their local city hall or shopping center—where one of the Wise Men is usually holding court—to hand-deliver the letters.

The Wise Man on display sits in a big throne, and is flanked by a pimply, teenaged assistant adorned in elf-like garb. Kids sit on the Wise Man’s lap, tell outright lies about their past year’s behavior, and then deposit their letters into a special mailbox next to the throne. This scenario may change in the future, however, as a US-based consulting firm recently recommended that the Wise Men dispense with the mailbox and henceforth receive all letters via Blackberry®.

On the eve of Three Wise Men’s Day, many towns—large and small—throughout Spain hold a parade; known as the cabalgata. Cabalgatas are fun for me, because I’m always interested to see what Baltasar will look like. Baltasar, you see, is black. Yet despite the recent immigration of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans into Spain, he is often portrayed—in parades and shopping malls—by a white man in black face. Can you imagine how this would go down at a J.C. Penny’s in Little Rock, Arkansas?!

In 2004, we attended the cabalgata that took place in our hometown of Cabanillas del Campo. It wasn’t quite up to Macy’s standards.

We gathered in the town square with 200 freezing spectators. Thirty or forty minutes after the scheduled start time, a tractor pulling a barely-decorated wagon appeared…three blocks away. The crowd sprinted en masse down the street to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Three Wise Men standing on the back of the tractor’s wagon. Meanwhile, their assistants hurled handful after handful of hard candies at our eye-sockets. The tractor then puttered off into the distance; leaving my fellow townsfolk and I wondering where, exactly, our local tax revenues are being spent.

Now, I don’t consider myself a biblical scholar. Truth be told, the only churches I’ve visited in the past decade were for weddings or sightseeing. But still…I’m fairly certain that nobody drove John Deere® tractors in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’s birth. Where would they’ve bought spark plugs?

So we decided that, this year, we would make the grueling five kilometer drive to Guadalajara and view its cabalgata instead. Guadalajara, being a city of 60,000 people, seemed unlikely to have any tractors on display—although we were a little concerned that Melchor might pass in the back seat of an Alfa Romeo convertible.

Our fears proved unfounded. Guadalajara’s cabalgata was magnificent. Gaspar rode the parade route on a real, live camel. Melchor was Alfa Romeo-free. And Baltasar (pictured above)—who, I am pleased to report, was not portrayed by Al Jolson—rode a baby elephant.

Separating each Wise Man’s entourage were elaborately-decorated floats pulled by live oxen, formations of Roman soldiers on horseback, columns of torch-wielding Egyptian maidens, and numerous marching bands (in the European sense, that is—not high school students in 20-inch high, fluffy hats blaring a brassy rendition of Eleanor Rigby).

After the cabalgata, we returned home to prepare for the Three Wise Men’s “visit” to come later that night as we slept. We put a bowl of water on the floor. Why? Because their camels are apt to be thirsty by the time they reach our house. Next year, I will suggest to my wife that—in the interest of fairness—we also leave three glasses of Cardhu® scotch whisky for the wise guys. If they’re not thirsty, then I might know someone who is.

Then we each put a shoe under the Christmas tree. Why? So they’d know where to lay our respective gifts. Good children get gifts. Bad children get carbón (i.e., coal). It isn’t really coal, but rather a black, sugar and egg-white candy that looks disturbingly similar to those chunks of filthy ice that grow from the quarter-panels of cars during late winter in Chicago.

Our prep-work done, we all went to bed.

At 7am the next morning (although it felt more like 3am), our two year old daughter bounded into the bedroom shouting, “Magos…magos!” Tellingly, there was no such enthusiasm on Christmas morning. Flying reindeers, apparently, can’t hold a candle to camels and elephants in the world of a two year old.

We went downstairs. There was no water in the bowl. There was no carbón next to the shoes. There certainly were no glasses of Cardhu® scotch whisky—full, empty or otherwise. But there were gifts; and that made the two year old very happy.

After gifts are opened, the final Three Wise Men’s Day tradition takes place: a breakfast of hot chocolate and roscón.

When I say “hot chocolate,” I am not talking about the insipid, Swiss Miss®-type chocolate that is popular in the US. Spanish hot chocolate has as much in common with Swiss Miss® as does Guiness® stout with Pabst Blue Ribbon®. Rather, the hot chocolate served in Spain resembles a dark, gooey mass of molten pudding. It’s an intense, face-puckering drink that you’d be tempted to eat with a fork and knife.

Roscón, on the other hand, is a fluffy, ring-shaped pastry topped with those candied fruits that only the British seem to like. Baked into each roscón is a prize; typically a little ceramic figurine or a dried fava bean. The person whose piece of roscón contains the prize will have good luck—provided, of course, that he didn’t break a molar on it.

And that, my friends, is everything you need to know about Three Wise Men’s Day. Now that TMD ‘05 has come and gone, Spain will be devoid of major holidays until Easter. But Easter just doesn’t have the same panache. The Easter Bunny doesn’t visit Spain. Not even on the back of a tractor.
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At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hola Sal,

Thanks for the lesson - good to know why it's impossible to get hold of you the first weeks of January. In Denmark we don't celebrate the 'Three Wise Men’s Day', but I won't complaint as we have plenty of holidays during the months of April, May and June. It's actually strange that we don't celebrate this day as we normally do everything to get off from work - and even our neighbours in Sweden and Finland celebrate this day (not because they are religious but more likely because they still have hangover from New Years alcohol trauma).
As to our Russian friends it's good to know that the orthodox Christmas actually relates to the 'Three Wise Men’s Day' rather then to the birth of Christ, and hence this day is more important from a religious point of view then December 24th/25th.

Btw - no to go all political (ref. your blog below regarding the Cock named Bush), but I finally got around to watch "Fahrenheit 9/11" this weekend. My God - if just 1% of it is true......imagine 4 more years with that ignorant! You better protect your oil tank in the garden before he chooses to invade and confiscate it all.

Take care and have a safe trip to Malta (and remember not to drink Vodka with drunk Danes and/or Russians ;o)


At 1:01 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...


Hello, my snow-covered friend. Thanks very much for the comment.

Regarding your warning about drinking vodka with Russians in Malta, I don't think there's in issue. You've already made sure that no Russians will be at the Malta conference.

I must, however, be careful around Jesper and Mikael.

And regarding the oil tank in my garden, I have little fear that Bush will send in the army to try to confiscate it...because it's OLIVE OIL! I would hope that this distinction is clear enought that *even he* can understand it. Well...perhaps I'm being optimistic.

At 2:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Sal,

Unfortunately there is no snow at all in Denmark at the moment - actually we had record breaking temperatures yesterday of 12 degrees Celsius (in fact the highest January temperature since 1880). Hopefully the snow will come later this month, if not then we don't need oil to heat our houses and the hole Iraq war has been for nothing ;o)

As to the olive oil in your garden - think you should mark clearly and perhaps make an educational book leaf to go with it just in case. I hate to say it, but he missed out on the WMD in Iraq (only found some old grenade launchers from the early 1980') so I don't leave much hope for you.

On the positive side you know it's going to be an American enterprise drilling in your garden - at least if it's up to Mr. Cheney and his "friends" at Halliburton.

Malta - I have instructed Jesper to "take care of you" so don't worry. Perhaps you should take care of him too since he has promised to drink my Vodka ration for the full event.

At 9:23 AM, Blogger FMH said...

Hi Sal,

I see you only know a part of the Roscón game. As a matter of fact, traditionally, they did not put one thing in the cake but two, one was the ceramic-issue you refer to and the other was a bean. If you found the prize, you were king of the party but if you found the bean, you paid for the cake.

It's not like that anymore, but there are still some places (very, very traditional bakeries) where you can find roscones with both the prize and the bean.


At 4:16 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Hola Fernando:

Thanks very much for your clarification and additional information.

But I have a follow-up question: What does it mean if I find a piece of Roscón in a bowl of beans???

Saludos, amigo!


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