Madrid’s Three Kings Parade

Modern day cabalgata in Madrid 2018

Showers of sweets

On the evening of Jan 5, a shower of sweets rains down on the city as the Three Kings Parade snakes a noisy glitter-strewn path through central Madrid. The Cabalgata de Reyes is a massive affair complete with beautifully decorated floats and huge speakers blaring out seasonal tunes that climaxes at Cibeles Palace where Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior address crowds of children high on sugar and the expectation of a generous visit from the magical trio – here we should spare a thought for beleaguered Spanish parents who now have to integrate Santa into the mix! The prelude to the feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the three wise men to Jesus’ manger, the event has become a highlight of the cultural calendar in Madrid and this year promises to be bigger than ever with aerial dances, giant puppets and a huge articulated camel to boot.

A steampunk float at the Three Kings parade in 2018

Late to the party

While the tradition of the parade is now so deeply entrenched in city life that some districts run their own, this has not always been the case. The first Spanish Three Kings parades only date back to the late 19th century when the town of Alcoy introduced the idea, with Barcelona following suit in 1879. Madrid, in comparison, was very late to the party with one of the first Cabalgata de los Reyes being held in 1928. According to the Biblioteca Nacional de España blog, this was organized by El Heraldo de Madrid newspaper and featured members of the Circo Price circus troupe. The idea was to distribute gifts to Madrid’s deprived children. Unsurprisingly, the event was a hit, though the mayor, who nominally supported the idea denied permission for the parade to go through Sol and other central areas, citing that it would be too disruptive.

Handing out presents during Epiphany in Madrid 1929. The event was one of the earlier Reyes parades mostly composed of soldiers accompanying the Three Wise men.
Gifts are distributed to deprived children in 1928 at Madrid’s first-ever Three Wise Men parade

Vanished tradition

The mayor might have refused to grant permission for the Herald’s parade to go through Sol because a problem with previous Three Wise Men celebrations was still fresh in civic memory. Though the Three Wise Men didn’t arrive in Madrid until the 1920s, the night before the Epiphany, a raucous parade used to barrel through the city in anticipation of their arrival. In a tradition that dated from the late 18th century, the working class guilds of night watchmen, water carriers, porters and domestic servants, would down tools after sundown on Jan 5 (the night before Epiphany) and roam around town carrying torches, candles and a figure held aloft on a ladder.

Reyes night in Puerta del Sol 1839. Here you can see the now banned tradition where an innocent carrying a basket filled with coins for the Reyes Magos climbs a ladder so he can see their arrival in the distance.
The oteador is the figure carrying the ladder in this 1839 painting of the scene at Puerta del Sol

The man climbing the ladder was the oteador, usually a recent recruit to the guild, often an Asturian as many of these men hailed from Asturias. The oteador’s job was to spot the Three Kings arriving from afar. He played the part of the innocent, still believing in the existence of magical men arriving to distribute presents to the children around town, with the crowd enjoyed a good laugh at his expense. One account in El Diario, states that he carried a cone used to spy the arrival of the cavalcade and conch to announce it with, though other accounts state he carried a basket of gold coins (as pictured above) to distribute among the crowd on their arrival.

Killjoy mayor

The parade went all the way through the city with one of the main points on the route being Puerta del Sol. While the tradition was popular with the working classes, some commentators branded it backward and grotesque. In 1883, the mayor stepped in and banned any procession featuring torches and ladders. Anyone breaking the ban faced a hefty fine, presumably, one participants could ill afford to pay as the tradition completely disappeared.

Circo Price performers ride horses for the 1929 parade organised by "El Heraldo de Madrid" newspaper and the city hall
Members of Circo Price dressed as the Three Kings at Madrid’s first Cabalgata de Reyes

Civil War and its aftermath brought Madrid to a standstill, so it wasn’t until 1953 that the tradition of the Three Kings parade returned to Madrid. From this point on it became an official affair organised by the local government meaning that now the cavalcade was allowed to go through the city center. Initially, these parades had a militaristic flavour with the Three Kings being accompanied by soldiers, however, over the years it’s livened up and now children also participate.

In 2018 the Reyes Magos received 6,000 letters from children, former mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena stands in the center.
The Three Kings with former Mayor Manuela Carmena in the middle

Animal rights

The kings originally rode in on horses and sometimes real camels were provided. However, the use of camels was banned in 2016 by former Mayor Manuela Carmena in response to concerns raised by animal rights groups. This wasn’t a big problem as neither camels nor horses are traditional in Madrid. In the 1950s and 1960s, Madrid’s Vespa club was so involved with the festival that the Vespa was the steed of choice and in 1962, the dazzling trio even rocked up in a front loader when Renault sponsored the parade. Happily, bans on camels for the Three Kings parade are now being instituted all over Spain as it’s now generally accepted that such events cause unnecessary stress for animals unused to crowds. RTVE even reports that this might be the last year camels are seen in Three Kings parades in Spain.

Blackface controversy

Distribution of toys to the children of Asilo San Rafael, photographed by Pepe Campúa on January 6, 1951.
Blackface used to be standard practice as seen in this picture of a 1951 event

The three kings are Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. In Spain Melchior represents Europeans, Caspar Asians, and Balthazar Africans. This is why Balthazar has traditionally been black. For a long time, this meant a white man putting on black makeup, but in recent years blackface has been increasingly seen as distasteful to modern Spaniards, especially seeing as the country is now much more ethnically diverse. Nevertheless, this issue arose in Madrid in 2009 when the local Socialist councilor Pablo García-Rojo ignored a petition against him attending as Balthazar in blackface.

Cerca 1958 a young boy poses with King Balthasar
A young boy poses with King Balthasar in 1958

Blackface is rarely seen in Spain now, though the issue has flared up in Igualada this year. In the town, Balthazar traditionally has 900 pages. Unable to recruit these from the black community, the majority are white men in blackface. In Caceres, the reverse problem has occurred and Balthazar has now morphed into a white man in a poster promoting the city’s Three Wise Men parade!

Balthazar has morphed into a white man in the poster for Caceres’ Three Kings parade

The future of the Three Kings parade

Three Kings parades take place all over the peninsula in many different forms. As it’s a relatively recent tradition, pretty much anything goes. For instance, Balthazar played African pop music from his float at Carmena’s 2016 parade. And while the press sometimes moans about the parade becoming increasingly modern and secular, the tradition itself doesn’t adhere to dogma. As details about the three wise men are pretty scant in the Bible, why not invent everything anew each year?

Where to see the parade

If you want to attend Madrid’s Three Kings parade, information about the main parade in the center can be found here.
However, this one gets very crowded so if you have smaller children, perhaps look into attending one of the equally splendid local parades.

Visiting Madrid want to hear more about the city from a local? Then why not hire me to give you a tour? Besides this blog, I write extensively about Madrid for Lonely Planet and other publications including The Guardian and Time Out. Get in touch to discuss prices.

Leave a Reply