A friend of ours told us that, once, when he was little, he asked his grandmother how the Three Kings were able to bring toys on time to all the children in Spain. The old woman, who knew many of the old traditions, told the boy that the kings weren’t the only ones who gave out gifts on Christmas. In fact, there were many who helped them.
As it is well known in Hispanic countries, it is above all the Three Kings who are tasked with bringing gifts on the eve of the 5th of January. According to the story, the first gifts they ever gave (gold, incense, and myrrh) were those that they left for the baby Jesus.
The Bible does not speak much of these kings. In its pages there is only mention of some mages, but it says nothing of there being three and doesn’t speak of any kind of royalty. The image that we have of these Three Kings could come from a 6th century representation found in the church of Saint Apolinar Nuovo in Ravena, Italy. In it we see three mages, one for each race of the known world at that time, and over it three names: “Gaspar, Melchior and Balthassar”.
The other famous figure of the Christmas season is Santa Claus. His arrival in Spain is more or less recent, although it is unknown exactly when.
The image of this kindly old man dressed in red has its origins in the story of St. Nicolas, a Turkish priest dedicated to the care of the sick and needy. According to the legend, St. Nicolas, having learned of the desperate situation of a poor widower and his three daughters, decided to sneak into their house during the night. He left a handful of gold in the socks of each of the girls, which were drying over the fireplace for the night. Does this sound familiar? In Netherlands, strangely enough, St. Nicolas leaves from Spain to distribute his gifts.
Besides the Three Kings and Santa Claus, there are other figures distinct to different Spanish regions. Now we are going to tell you about a few of these.
In the Basque country and the Baja Navarra, the one responsible for bringing the gifts on Christmas day is “Olentzero”, a mythical coal miner covered in soot who comes down from the mountains. They describe him as a kindly old man who loves to eat and smoke his pipe, although in recent times he has quit smoking so as not to set a bad example.
Similar to him is the Galician “Apalpador”, also a miner, but he brings his gifts on the last day of the year instead. It is said that he enters the rooms of the children, feels their tummies to see if they have eaten well, then leaves them piles of hazel and a gift.
In Cantabria there’s no coal miner, but instead a great bearded woodcutter named “Esteru” who carves toys. According to the legend, he died trying to save some children trapped in a fire, was turned into a spirit, and now brings presents to homes in the region.
From this same region there are also the “Anjanas”, fairies who also bring gifts, but this time on the 6th of January. In old times they used to say that they only brought gifts every four years, and only to the poorer families.
A character who has recently arrived (only 2 years ago) is “Angulero”, from Asturias. We know very little of him because he has only been seen a few times, but we do know that he is also a kindly old man, dressed in a raincoat and a wool sailors hat. He is believed to be an old eel fisherman who comes to Asturias from the Sargozan Sea (a place where the eels spawn).
The most curious of these perhaps, is the “Tió de Nadal”, in Catalonia. This legend isn’t so much about a kindly old man, but instead about the tree trunk upon which he feeds from the 7th of December until Christmas, when he then begins to defecate candies and sweets. As you can imagine, he can’t exactly give out bicycles and video-consoles this way, he leaves that to the Three Kings.
Many scholars believe that these characters could have their origins in the gods of ancient local cultures (maybe even from the times before the arrival of the Romans in Spain). It is believed that these gods were transformed little by little by Christianity until they became the curious deliverers of happiness that we know today.
As we have seen, our friend’s grandmother was right. There are certainly many characters handing out Christmas gifts throughout Spain (surely there are even some that we have not mentioned). Choose whomever you like best and, if you behave yourself, surely he will leave you something as well.
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