History tells us that the birth of Christ was celebrated for the first time in Rome on the 25th of December of the year 386. This distinguished the Pope and his western church from the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch and his eastern church in Constantinople. The eastern church celebrated the feast of the Epiphany instead.The birth of Jesus was just one of four celebrations; on a second day the worship of the Three Holy Kings was commemorated and on a third, the wedding at Cana. The wedding at Cana where Jesus is believed to have turned water into wine was considered to be his first miracle. The fourth celebration commemorated the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John the Baptist.
In the course of the centuries, Christmas became commonly regarded as the most important Christian celebration in the western church, while, for the Greek-Orthodox church, Easter became the most meaningful of the year. In addition, the celebration of the three holy kings gained a special importance in Spain. In fact the worship of the Three Kings is taken so seriously on the Iberian Peninsula and in the Balearics that the three Orientals are not placed into nativity scenes until the actual day of their arrival, the 6th of January.
So why three kings? It is not know exactly how many kings there were, where they came from, or if there were actually any kings at all. In the New Testament, according to the Gospel of Matthew, which is the only document reporting this episode, no number is given. Oriental narrations describe up to twelve kings, magicians or astrologers, who attended the worship of Jesus in the stable. Furthermore, the title of a king in those days did not signify its later meaning and importance.
The number three, however, is a fundamental element of the Christian religion and its faith in the trinity of father, son and Holy Spirit. Three is the symbol of perfection. It is a key to the world as a whole and corresponds to the theological virtues faith, hope and love.
In the Middle Ages, the idea was born to have the three kings travel to Bethlehem from the three known continents and to assign each of them a particular age. We see this exemplified in most gothic paintings: A grey-haired Balthazar, a middle-aged Melchior, and a young Caspar. While modern day celebrations include a dark-skinned king, it is likely that the black king was a coincidence and owed to an inaccurate translation. The word ¨black¨ was used when referring to hair or a beard in early traditions.
According to gifts they presented, the three holy kings are known most commonly as the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh Kings. Like so much in Christian mythology, this has an ambiguous meaning. Many of the figures of the Old and the New testament were besieged with interpretation in order to support their truth content. Gold is the expression for kingship, Frankincense represents the divinity and Myrrh means death, resurrection and ransom.
Since Santa Claus (or Father Christmas) became the global symbol of gift giving at Christmas, this has also become the habit in Spain. Previously children here were only given gifts on the day of Three Kings. Outside cultures and influences have introduced the custom of ¨Christkind¨, the German counterpart to the holy evening and celebrated on Christmas Eve (24th), or the more common Santa Claus, ever present worldwide commercially and in films, who is believed to come through the chimneys of houses around the globe and deliver gifts under trees and fill stockings before children awake on Christmas morning, the 25th of December.
On the evening of “Noche Buena”, the 24th, Mallorcan families gather for a common meal. The gathering is, as in most western countries, intended to be cheerful and merry. Afterwards it seems like the whole city is on its legs in Palma. In Palma´s massive cathedral, every last seat is occupied for the midnight mass. Those who arrive late must remain outside in the cold, with little warmth from the few supplied outdoor heaters. The “Song of the Sybilla” fills the church, bringing a smile to some and tears to others. In ancient times, Sybillas were considered to be psychics. The Sybilla of Erythraea is said to have forecasted the birth of Jesus Christi, and that is praised in the song. After the mass, people fill Palma´s many cafés and bars. Here they meet friends and acquaintances and enjoy traditional hot chocolate, served so thick that it can hold up a spoon, coca de Nadal, (savoury pastry slices topped with fried vegetables), bunuelos (sweet doughnuts), as well as various tapas and Sherry, wine or beer.
For Mallorcan children, excitement arrives again on the 5th of January, when an old custom is followed whereby Mallorca´s little ones place a shoe filled with hay and a list of wishes, and often a water-filled jug on the window sill. Thus the camels passing the house get something to eat and in return, the kings leave gifts.
Visible to all is the highly-anticipated arrival of the three kings, as their ship sails into the port of Palma, opposite the former maritime trade exchange “La Llotja”. Accompanied by fireworks and music, they are greeted by 400 entertainers and over twenty floats. After these men from the Orient have changed into their capes and harem pants and their crowns are properly in place, they mount their camels and the procession begins, as legend states, from their landing place along the “Passeig Sagrera ‘,” the Jaume II ‘; and the “Born”, to the Placa de Cort ‘, the town hall square. On their way they throw “caramelos ¨ (candies) into the thrilled crowed.
To ensure that the children in the smaller coastal places and the villages aren’t left without presents, the ¨Reis Magos” multiply on this Three-King day and arrive all over the Mediterranean island. In the seaside villages they arrive by ship as they do in Palma, and in the smaller communities parents bring presents for their children to the local priest who then passes them on, so that the “Reis”, riding on donkeys and horses and even tractors, can hand out these gifts to the little kings and queens. These smaller celebrations might not be as spectacular as that in the capital of Palma, but at least one can admire the sparkling splendour, the harem trousers and the fantastic headdresses no matter how rural the village.
Adults tend to exchange gifts at Christmas, while the 6th of January remains exclusively reserved for children who are the “kings” of the Spanish families. This is also the reason why the child who finds the coin or bean baked into the Three Kings Cake, which is baked in the shape of a crown, is allowed to wear the golden paper crown and be ¨king for the day”. This dates back to a pre-Christian custom which was celebrated at the turn of the year. The person who found the bean or the piece of metal was granted good luck for the next year. Adults are not left empty-handed on Three Kings day for, traditionally, the play titled “Warship of the Kings” is staged below the cathedral and is a great source of amusement to older audiences. Over the years the play has developed into a cabaret-style event and personalities of public life act as Biblical figures, who perform funny, ironic and sometimes sarcastic exchanges over current political and social topics.
In the end, it is children who enjoy these festivities the most and their anticipation has already begun at the end of November, when crowds gather in the town hall square of Palma to watch the illumination of the Christmas lights. With thundering applause, the thousands of bulbs are switched on and the island’s capital glitters with twinkling strands of beautiful, antique lights which adorn the city until the holiday comes to an end on the “Dia del Reis ‘, Three Kings day.