Kings’ night celebrations

Differences on parade: Why the Three Kings are causing controversy

Traditional January 5 celebrations in Spain have been plagued this year by disagreements

The 2015 Three Magi parade in Madrid.
The 2015 Three Magi parade in Madrid.Samuel Sánchez

The magic of Christmas lies with children, who will come out in force on Tuesday evening to watch the traditional parade of the Three Kings. In Spain, it is these biblical characters who bring presents to good little boys and girls on the night of January 5, and their nocturnal home visits are preceded by street parades across the country.

But while kids enjoy these simple joys, grown-ups will continue to argue over controversial new elements that have been introduced into the tradition by several local governments.

The debate is particularly heated in Madrid, where three districts (San Blas, Ciudad Lineal and Puente de Vallecas) have decided to let women play the role of the Kings of Orient.

In a Málaga village, 100 volunteers have been working around the clock to repair four floats that were set on fire

While the media first reported that there would now be Queens of Orient in Madrid, it later emerged that the participating women would in fact be dressing as male monarchs. This in turn led some opposition politicians to question the entire point of the exercise.

“We support giving women leading roles, but taking a woman and dressing her up as a man... we’re not quite sure what this is trying to prove,” said Mar Espinar, the Socialist spokesperson for cultural affairs. “We cannot say we agree to disguising women as men, when we ourselves demanded that King Balthazar should be played by a black man rather than a white man with black face paint.”

Many cities have been grappling with this latter issue, which immigrant groups say represents a clear case of racism. In Pamplona, for the first time ever this year the man described in the Bible as a Babylonian scholar who brought gifts to the baby Jesus will be played by a black man.

“Our demand is to be able to represent ourselves,” says Consuelo Cruz, a Colombian-born Spaniard who ran in the December elections with the Socialist Party. “How would people feel if we got a black man in white face paint to play Santa Claus? They would laugh, they would say how ridiculous, how absurd.”

A reconverted VIP area

Another cause for friction in Madrid is the fact that Mayor Manuela Carmena, of the leftist coalition Ahora Madrid, has converted the VIP area into an area for people with disabilities. Until now, these seats, which benefit from great views of the parade, were reserved for the mayor’s family and for the children and grandchildren of leading personalities from the fields of finance and culture.

In another widely debated decision, Madrid authorities denied children of a religious school the right to participate in their local parade in Carabanchel on the grounds that the school segregates students by gender, and thus violates non-discrimination principles.

And if the human element in the Cabalgata de Reyes did not provide enough fodder for debate, the use of animals has become another source of grief.

How would people feel if we got a black man in white face paint to play Santa Claus?”

Consuelo Cruz, Socialist Party

The Three Magi traditionally ride on camels where authorities can provide them, or else on horseback – or even on mules where no other pack animal is available.

But this year, there will be no animals at all in Valladolid and Valencia. Instead, people will dress up as animals. The same holds true for Madrid, where many locals expressed deep disappointment.

“My grandchildren are always very excited to see the camels. It’s going to be such a letdown for them,” said Encarnación Martínez, a grandmother of three who stakes out the same spot on Paseo de la Castellana every year, and brings along a stepladder and a basket to carry home the candy that gets passed out.

Burnt floats and overworked kings

Even without all the controversy, the national celebration is always rife with anecdotes. In a small Málaga village named Arriate, more than 100 volunteers have been working around the clock to repair four parade floats that were deliberately set on fire on Sunday night.

The budget also plays a role. In one Navarre valley, the same three magi have to visit 16 villages in one evening. Meanwhile, in the Alicante town of Alcoy, which boasts the oldest Three Magi parade in Spain – now into its 131st year – the celebration is so lavish that the kings have 370 pages at their service who will climb up to people’s balconies to personally deliver their presents.

English version by Susana Urra.