I chose to fly into Madrid a few days before my program began purely at random (and because weekday flights were significantly cheaper than weekend ones), but, as it turns out, my timing was impeccable. My father and I unknowingly flew out here the day before one of the biggest celebrations in the country: El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos (also referred to as Navidad, the Epiphany, Coming of the Three Kings, etc.)
The celebration has deep Christian roots in Spain. While the majority of Christians in the US recognize Christmas and present gifts on December 25th, in Spain, and many Orthodox Christian churches or countries, “Christmas” as we are familiar with is celebrated January 6th. January 6th is designated as the day the three Magi Kings came bearing gifts to baby Jesus. Instead of a “Santa Claus”, small children wait expectantly for the three Kings to bring them toys and candies. Like in the US, stores advertise sales for weeks ahead of time about Navidad sales (in which Dad and I had to brave because I forgot to pack towels). The holiday is commonly coined as “Children’s Day”, and results in a significant number of stores, shops and museums being closed for the entire day.
I was told by a friend who has lived in Madrid for years that the country is widely split between people who only celebrate Christmas on December 25, only January 6th, both days or don’t celebrate at all. But, typically, anyone you wish a “Feliz Navidad” will wish you one as well.
Additionally, the signature holiday dessert is el Roscón de Reyes: a circular cake with a hole in the middle that is sliced in half horizontally and filled with thick, sugary frosting and covered in nuts and candied fruits. My dad pointed out that it was almost identical to King’s Cake in the South of the United States for Mardi Gras and Lent.
What I didn’t know before ordering the cake is a small toy is inserted somewhere inside the cake for a person to find while eating…what I know now is that the toy is NOT edible. One of the workers at the café we were eating at told me that the tradition is whoever finds the toy has to buy the next Roscón. I was perfectly fine with that because the cake is delicious and I highly recommend it to anyone who gets the chance to order it.
On the Eve of Children’s Day, there are HUGE parades that take place across the city after sunset. There are floats with bright lights, loud music, animatronics, volunteers throwing candy and much more. Many of the streets in Madrid were shut down starting the night before to block off space for the people attending the parades. My dad and I were lucky enough to see the main “Cabalgata de Reyes” (ride of the Kings) with a great view. Being Christian ourselves, it was an incredible experience to be able to celebrate Christmas for a second time.
Something that surprised the both of us at la Cabalgata was the lack of vendors at the parade. In las plazas around the city there are always street performers and vendors with small toys selling to pedestrians, but at la Cabalgata, there was not a single vendor: food, drink or otherwise. This was a stark contrast to America, where you’re bombarded by signs and shouting vendors just on the way to the event, and even more once inside. I sent an email to a few students at UP Comillas that I had been contacted by earlier asking about this, but haven’t received a response as of yet. As Dad and I walked through the streets, we only encountered children, parents, the police, and a few perros.
Finally, not only did we manage to fly in during a significant holiday weekend, but there is also snow and sleet happening outside as I write this. For those unfamiliar with Madrid weather, the record number of days ever with snowfall in a year is 8. It’s typically too warm and dry in the city for snow to happen, so I guess one would say its a Christmas miracle.
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