For Spaniards, the Epiphany, on January 6th, is the pinnacle of the Christmas season, when children receive their presents from the Three Kings, who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus.
The night before, towns and cities across the country stage Three Kings parades, during which Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar travel through the streets on floats, throwing sweets and treats to children who line the route.
One controversial aspect of the magical spectacle is about to change in Madrid: while Balthazar has traditionally been played by a white man wearing black make-up, Madrid’s City Hall has announced that it will end the arguably racist tradition and enlist a black actor to play the wise man.
The move comes after critics have complained for years that Balthazar should be played by a black man rather than a white man wearing make-up.
Socialist councillor Mar Espinar confirmed that the left-wing city hall, headed by mayor Manuela Carmena had agreed to a Socialist petition to change the practice, “to reflect the integration and diversity that increasingly characterizes Madrid’s community.”
And for Espinar, the gesture is more than merely symbolic: “It is one step further in the recognition of the diversity and multiculturalism that characterizes modern Madrid,” she said.
“Luckily this anachronism will be dropped by next Christmas,” she added.
The three kings in Madrid’s popular parade are traditionally played by city councillors. Due to the lack of councillors of diverse ethnicities, this has often led to a white person blacking up using make-up.
In December 2014, over 60,000 people signed a petition calling for Madrid to choose a black man to play Balthazar in the parade.
Critics have long claimed that the parade should reflect Madrid’s diversity, while the city hall always denied claims of racism, citing “tradition” as the reason white men blacked up to play the king.
The three kings parades are not the only event in Spain where people have blacked-up.
Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians) festivals are traditionally celebrated in Spain to commemorate the battles between Catholics and Muslims during the 15th century Reconquest, but have also attracted widespread criticism for the fact that almost all the Moorish characters are actually white people wearing make-up.