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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Change.org petition against him attending as Balthazar in blackface.
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!
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?
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