How Three Kings Day Is Celebrated in Spain

Table prepared for breakfast on the day of The Three Kings

 Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia / Getty Images

After Santa has already visited and left gifts for children around the world, young kids in Spain are still anxiously awaiting the reyes magos to bring them their gifts on Three Kings' Day, or Día de los Reyes. Also referred to as the Feast of the Epiphany, this biblical holiday is celebrated each year on January 6 in Spain and many other Spanish-speaking countries.

While the holiday season in the U.S. normally ends right after the New Year, the winter vacation in Spain lasts until Three Kings' Day. It's one of Spain's most important holidays, not just for the gifts, but also for the massive parade, the national lottery, and the traditional kings' cake.

Los Reyes Magos

In Spain, jolly old St. Nick takes a backseat to the Three Kings of biblical lore, sometimes referred to as the Three Wise Men in English. According to the Bible, these three men traveled from around the world to Bethlehem to bring gifts to the newborn Jesus. Whether or not they were actually kings is up for debate, but their legend of gift-giving has lived on.

On January 5, the eve of Three Kings' Day, Spanish children leave their empty shoes near the front door or window, hoping to find them filled with treats and presents the following morning. Many kids also leave out three glasses of warm milk and sweets for each of the kings, plus some hay or grass for their hungry camels. The next morning, the previously empty shoe is hopefully filled with and surrounded by gifts, although naughty kids in Spain may be left a lump of coal, just as with Christmas in the U.S.

The Parade

Traditionally, Santa arrives in secret sometime in the night, stealthily sliding down chimneys while everyone is fast asleep. The Three Kings, on the other hand, make a very public entrance with a lot of hubbub. Each city and town hosts its own parade on the eve of Three Kings' Day, called the cabalgata, to celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings into Spain from their long journey. The Kings march down the main avenue of the city, either on their camels or on elaborate floats. In some coastal cities, like Barcelona, they arrive by boat and then continue on to the parade. In others, they've arrived by helicopter.

It's a tradition, especially for families, to come out and see the parade. The Kings throw out candy to the excited spectators, who then rush home to bed so the Kings can visit and leave their presents.

The Traditional Cake

As early as December, the ubiquitous holiday cake known as the roscón de Reyes, or kings' cake, starts appearing in the windows of bakeries and grocery stores across Spain. 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, and sometimes filled with whipped cream.

The most exciting part of the cake is that two small items are baked inside of it, traditionally a small figurine of baby Jesus and a bean, although they vary. If you're given a slice and find the figurine, it means you'll have good luck for the rest of the year. If you find the bean, however, it's your responsibility to pay for the roscón.

If you're in Spain during the holidays, you'll have to seek out a slice at a high-quality bakery. Even though virtually every family in Spain eats this dessert on January 6, almost everyone purchases a cake. It's difficult to prepare at home, and the most sought-after bakeries have their stocks reserved weeks before Kings' Day.

The Lottery

Many Spaniards love their holiday lottery, and the holiday draw right before Christmas Day is considered to be the largest lottery in the world based on total payout. A couple of weeks later, on January 6, Spain plays its second-largest lottery of the year, called El Niño. As you're walking through any Spanish city in the days leading up to January 6, you'll see lines at national lottery stores and individuals peddling tickets in the street. On the morning of Three Kings' Day, after the kids have feverishly opened up all of their gifts, parents sit in front of the television hoping to hear their ticket number called as the winner of El Gordo, "the big one."

Christmas Day in Spain

Christmas Day is a national holiday in Spain, but despite the country's strong Catholic roots, the day itself has not traditionally been a major day of celebration. On Christmas Eve, families do host a big family dinner, which always begins with some cured hams and cheeses as appetizers and ends with turrón, a holiday candy made from almonds. The main course varies from region to region and family to family.

For decades, Santa was a tradition reserved for the countries of Northern Europe and North America, but as U.S. traditions have become more and more widespread, it's not uncommon for children to receive a few smaller gifts on Christmas as well. In Spain, he's known as Papá Noel, and arrives on a sleigh with reindeer just as in other parts of the world. However, the Three Kings are still the primary source of excitement for children in Spain.

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 retrieve crosses that have been thrown in, 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.