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Stories About Spain

The Joy of Children

Written by: Don Harris

one of the three kings talking to children Three Kings Day is all about the joy of children as they join the whole community to celebrate the coming of the Magi. One of my favorite essays in my book, The Heart of Spain, describes one of the most delightful celebrations in Spain.

Three Kings Day, the sixth of January, is still alive and well in Spain. The local parades, the Magi, the happy children scrambling for caramelos - it is Epiphany, the culmination of the Christmas festivities, and it remains intact - very traditional and very Spanish.

It is one of the religious celebrations which are central to the identity of Spain. That most Spanish of all events, Semana Santa, is still so laden with emotion, that the suffering of Good Friday almost eclipses the Resurrection as a focus of devotion and celebration.

The Spanish Three Kings Day is quite different in its focus. Rather than being devotional, it has always been the festival for children and the family. The celebration of the arrival of the Wise Men, the Magi, is an official excuse to go all out in showering attention and affection on their children - who are singularly treasured in the Spanish culture.

Modern Spain has in many ways been heavily influenced by modern secular culture imported from America and her northern European neighbors. Santa as a mercantile symbol is in most of the stores. Modern Spaniards even have Christmas trees!

But if you want to experience traditional Spain, go to the towns and celebrate Tres Reyes with the local people, where Three Kings Day is still central in the children's hearts. The Christmas season begins with a Carta de Reyes, a letter that children pick up in the post office, fill out and mail free of charge to the Three Wise Men.

It reaches its climax with a parade, which in Spanish is called the Cabalgata - a cavalcade - a ceremonial procession, especially on horseback. This Friday evening, as is customary on the fifth of January, the eve of Three Kings Day, thousands of excited children and their parents will gather along the streets of virtually every city and village in Spain in anticipation of the arrival of the Three Kings.

One of them, Baltazar, is an anachronism: reflecting the long time Muslim presence in Spain, he appears as a Moor and an African! He is a favorite of the children since, until recently, black Africans were a rarity in Spain. He is accompanied by the other Magi, Melchior and Gaspar, and together they toss candy into the excited crowd of children. In some towns, the Magi stop to greet the children personally, giving them small presents as well.

After the excitement of the parade, it is time to prepare the children to go to bed. But just before bedtime on this magic eve, the children prepare three items that they will leave by the door for the Wise Men: a dish of water and hay or straw for their camels, rich turrón made of honey and almonds (such as we have at La Tienda), and a glass of wine or sherry for the Kings. Next to the provisions they have prepared, the children leave a pair of shoes in which they hope the Kings will deposit a gift or two.

When they awaken next morning the children discover their gifts, and for breakfast they might enjoy chocolate a la taza (thick hot chocolate) and Roscón de Reyes - sweet bread embedded with candied fruit - similar to Easter bread in Greece and Scandinavia. Within the bread is hidden a prize, perhaps a small coin or a ring. Whoever finds it is King for the day.

Late in the afternoon, after dinner and a siesta, the children and their parents visit the homes of their extended family, grandparents, aunts and uncles or a favorite cousin, to see what the Kings have given them. It is an all day evolution devoted to the family.

three kings day processionMy wife Ruth and I, and our sons, have many fond memories of Tres Reyes. One year we visited the mountain town of Guadalupe, where we saw the children born the previous year being presented for a blessing on the monastery steps. Soon thereafter the Wise Men arrived dressed in their exotic Near Eastern attire. They did not arrive on camels, however, but on a flat-bed hauled by a John Deere tractor. The kids could care less about the incongruity; they were delighted to catch the candy that the Three Kings were tossing to them.

Another time Ruth and I visited the lovely town of Trujillo in Extremadura. The entire population gathers in the vast Plaza Mayor each Tres Reyes Eve, under the watchful eye of Conquistador Juan Pizarro who is looking down from a huge bronze statue.

As we stood among the gathering we could see grandmothers lovingly fussing over their grandchildren safely tucked in their strollers. Fathers and grandfathers were playing with the young boys who were scampering through the crowd of their neighbors.

Families would stop to admire the Belén, or crèche, situated in the plaza near the stone steps. A beautiful young girl next to the manger was dressed as Mary. She was watched over by a young boy Joseph – who was a little less convincing with his cotton batten beard. Gathered around the manger were a few teen-aged shepherds. And then, at the appropriate time, their fathers and uncles rode into town on handsome horses, dressed as the Three Kings. The carts that accompanied them were filled with candy dispensed by young señoritas.

Perhaps the most elaborate festivity was the one Ruth and I, and two of our sons, witnessed in the holy city of Santiago de Compostela – the goal for pilgrims throughout the world. As we headed across the Plaza de Obradoiro toward the cabalgata of the Kings, we were jostled by the crowd of children with their parents and grandparents.

We peered around the medieval stone columns of Santiago’s ancient Romanesque arcades to witness the arrival of the Magi. Their entrance was quite impressive – out of the misty night appeared three men in elaborate costumes, mounted on impressive steeds, and accompanied by truck after truck of caramelos for the children.

What a wonderful way to end the holiday season - providing some event to delight our children. Earlier I mentioned that Spaniards treasure their children, and I used the word "treasured" purposely. If there was one characteristic, above all others, that attracts me to Spain, it is seeing how they cherish their children – not just the parents, whom you would expect, but the whole community.

Other mothers (and grandmothers, of course), whom we would view as strangers, will joyfully come up to a little baby and admire her profusely. Then they will reach into their purse for an omni-present caramelo to present to the child. ¡Que guapa! – How beautiful! – She will exclaim. Those women are not strangers but part of a broader community that supports the child all her (or his) life.
one of the three kings riding in a procession
The English adage "children should be seen and not heard" is incomprehensible to the traditional Spaniard. As many of you who have traveled the byways of Spain know, children are everywhere. When Ruth and I were eating dinner at 10 o'clock in the evening in Andalucía, we would see the Spanish parents enjoying dinner together, while all around their tables the children were playing. And why not? They are as much part of the family as the older people. In fact they are our hope.

I hope you had some time to enjoy your children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces, this holiday season. I love to see the unbounded joy and wonder of little children as they discover the world around them.

Felices fiestas y un Prospero Año Nuevo,

Don Harris

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"Wonderful article! I especially appreciate your comments about how children are treasured! I have worked in early childhood education for 30 years in the US; and in 2008 had the chance to visit southern Spain with my 18 mo. old granddaughter. I have never experienced the sheer delight of "strangers" enjoying our granddaughter and how the whole community looked after all the children who were out in the parks! Spanish people really do understand the importance and value of our youngest citizens!"
January 2013

"Dear Sharon, it sounds as if we are soul mates! To be born into this world feeling cherished, surrounded by affirming family and neighbors is the greatest gift you can give a child. It gives the youngster such a head start on life. I was not brought up that way, but on my first cruise to Spain, when I saw how the children were treated, Spain stole my heart away."

"How beautiful...while America is wonderful, the "melting-pot" has diluted so much rich tradition. Thank you for the vacation that my soul took while reading your article."
January 2013

"It is true that our melting pot has given new lives to many aspiring immigrants -- as with all of my grandparents. And it is also true that some traditional ways of life can be stifling to some people or they would not have left their native land, but it is important that we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater. There is a durable love expressed within a traditional family, with many generations living in proximity, which cannot be replicated easily in America. By the way, there is a wonderful movie recently re-released called "America America" by Elia Kazan which poignantly recounts the travails of a young Greek boy fleeing the persecution of the Turks as he seeks to live in America."

"I enjoy your articles and this was especially good. "
January 2013

"Thank you, Carol. As I think you can tell, I really love being around little children, especially our two grandsons and two granddaughters -- all of who live around the corner from us."

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Reflexiones en Español

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La Dicha de los Niños

one of the three kings talking to childrenEl día de Reyes, el seis de enero, aún se festeja intensamente en España, Las cabalgatas locales, los Reyes, los niños tan felices apresurándose a coger caramelos – es Epifanía, la culminación de las celebraciones navideñas y permanece inalterable: muy tradicional y muy española.

Es una de las celebraciones religiosas fundamentales de la identidad española. El más español de todos los acontecimientos es la Semana Santa, tan cargada de emoción que el dolor del Viernes Santo casi eclipsa al Domingo de Resurrección como eje de devoción y celebración.

El día de Reyes español se centra en un aspecto diferente. Más que una devoción, ha sido siempre una fiesta para los niños y la familia. La celebración de la llegada de los Reyes Magos es la excusa general para colmar de atención y afecto a los niños – que en la cultura española se miman de manera singular.

La España moderna está cargada de influencia importada de la cultura americana moderna y secular y de sus vecinos europeos. Santa Claus como símbolo comercial se encuentra en todas las tiendas. ¡Los españoles modernos tienen incluso árboles de Navidad!

Pero si lo que quieres es vivir la España tradicional, vete y celebra el día de Reyes con los lugareños de cualquier pueblo, donde el día de Reyes aún arraiga en lo más profundo de los corazones infantiles. La época de Navidad comienza con la Carta a los Reyes, una carta que los más pequeños recogen en las oficinas de Correos, escriben y mandan de forma gratuita a sus Majestades los Reyes.

Alcanza su apogeo con una cabalgata, una procesión ritual, sobre todo de personajes a caballo. Este viernes, como es habitual, por la tarde-noche del cinco de enero, víspera de Reyes, miles de emocionados niños se agolparan junto a sus padres en las calles de prácticamente todas las localidades españolas en espera de la llegada de los Reyes Magos.

Uno de ellos, Baltasar, es un anacronismo: refleja la prolongada presencia musulmana en España, se representa como moro africano. Es el preferido de los niños, puesto que hasta hace bien poco los africanos negros eran una rareza en España. Viene acompañado de otros Magos: Melchor y Gaspar, y juntos lanzan caramelos a la emocionada multitud de niños. En algunos lugares, los Reyes se detienen a saludar personalmente a los niños y a entregarles pequeños regalos también.

Tras la emoción de la cabalgata, es hora de acostar a los niños. Pero antes de dormir en esta mágica víspera, los niños preparan tres objetos que dejan junto a la puerta para sus Majestades: un plato de agua y heno o paja para los camellos; apetitoso turrón de miel y almendras (como los que tenemos en La Tienda) y una copa de vino o de jerez para los Reyes. Junto a las vituallas preparadas, los niños colocan un par de zapatos en los que esperan que los Reyes dejen uno o dos regalitos.

Cuando se despiertan al día siguiente los niños descubren los regalos y puede que desayunen un chocolate caliente y Roscón de Reyes – pan dulce con fruta caramelizada en su interior—parecido al Pan de Pascua de Grecia y Escandinavia. Dentro del roscón hay un regalo escondido – quizás una monedita o un anillo. Quien lo encuentra es el rey por un día.

Avanzada ya la tarde, tras el almuerzo y la siesta, los niños y sus padres visitan a la familia: abuelos, tías y tíos o un primo preferido, para ver qué les han dejado a ellos los Reyes. Es un día completamente dedicado a la familia.

three kings day processionMi esposa Ruth y yo junto con nuestros hijos tenemos muchos recuerdos entrañables del día de Reyes. Un año visitamos Guadalupe, un pueblo de las montañas, donde vimos cómo se presentaban a los niños nacidos en el año anterior ante la escalinata del monasterio para bendecirlos. Poco después aparecían sus Majestades vestidos con sus exóticos ropajes del Próximo Oriente. No llegaron en camellos, sin embargo, sino en una carroza tirada por un tractor John Deere. A los niños les importaba más bien poco la incongruencia; estaban embelesados haciendo acopio de los caramelos que les lanzaban los tres Reyes.

En otra ocasión Ruth y yo visitamos la encantadora ciudad de Trujillo en Extremadura. Todos los habitantes se reúnen en la amplia Plaza Mayor la víspera de Reyes, bajo la observadora mirada del conquistador Juan Pizarro quien los mira desde su enorme estatua de bronce.

Estando allí de pie vimos abuelas que se deshacían en atenciones con sus nietos mullidamente arropados en sus carritos. Padres y abuelos jugaban con los pequeños que correteaban entre la multitud de vecinos.

Las familias se paraban a admirar el Belén o el Nacimiento de la plaza al lado de los escalones de piedra. Una preciosa joven junto al pesebre estaba vestida de María. La observaba un joven José, que resultaba un poco menos convincente con esa fingida barba de algodón. Alrededor del pesebre había unos cuantos pastores adolescentes. Y entonces, en el momento preciso, hacían aparición sus padres y tíos montados en bellos caballos, vestidos de Reyes. Las carrozas que los acompañaban estaban llenas de caramelos que bellas señoritas repartían.

Probablemente el festejo más suntuoso fue el que presencié junto a Ruth y dos de mis hijos en Santiago de Compostela, destino de peregrinos de todo el mundo. Nos encaminábamos por la Plaza del Obradoiro hacia la cabalgata de Reyes cuando nos vimos aprisionados por una multitud de chiquillos, padres y abuelos.

Nos esforzamos para ver entre las columnas medievales de pórticos del Románico de Santiago y presenciar la llegada de sus Majestades. La entrada fue impresionante, aparecieron de entre tinieblas y brumas tres hombres con fastuosas vestiduras, a lomos de hermosos corceles y acompañados de camiones y camiones de caramelos para los niños.

¡Qué maravillosa manera de poner fin a estas fiestas: celebrar el acontecimiento para deleitar a nuestros pequeños! Anteriormente mencioné que los españoles miman a sus niños, y utilicé la palabra mimar a propósito. Si existe una característica sobre las otras, que siempre me ha atraído de España es el ver cómo miman a sus pequeños, no sólo ya los padres, eso por supuesto, sino toda la comunidad.

Madres (y abuelas, claro) extrañas para nosotros, se acercan a un bebé para admirarlo extremosamente. Después buscan en el bolso el omnipresente caramelo para ofrecérselo al niño o la niña: ¡Qué guapo! o ¡qué guapa! exclamarán. Esas mujeres no son extrañas sino parte de una comunidad más amplia que siempre agasajará a los niños.
one of the three kings riding in a procession
El dicho inglés “a los niños se les debe ver pero no oír” es incomprensible para el español tradicional. Como muchos de vosotros que habéis viajado por los caminos de España sabéis, los niños están en todos sitios. Cuando Ruth y yo cenábamos a las diez de la noche en Andalucía, veíamos a los padres disfrutar una cena en compañía de amigos mientras que alrededor de la mesa jugaban los niños. ¿Y por qué no? Ellos son tan parte de la familia como los adultos. De hecho, son nuestra esperanza.

Espero que hayáis tenido tiempo de disfrutar de la compañía de vuestros hijos, nietos y sobrinos durante estas fiestas. Me encanta ver el gozo y el asombro desmesurado de los niños al descubrir el mundo que les rodea.

Felices fiestas y un Próspero Año Nuevo,

Don Harris

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