Spain’s Three Kings celebrations bring gifts, sweets…and controversy

Spain's Three Kings celebrations bring gifts, sweets...and controversy
One of the Three Kings in Madrid. Photo: Ayuntamiento Madrid.
On Wednesday, Spaniards celebrated the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, when traditionally Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar - and not Santa - bring children their presents. But the event did not pass without its fair share of controversy.

The night before the Epiphany, on January 5th, children around Spain flock to the wildly popular Three Kings Parades – or cabalgatas – to watch Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar process through town and – perhaps most importantly – catch as many of the sweets and candies thrown from the floats as possible. 

But this year a series of incidents and changes to the parades caused controversy in Spain. 

King plummets off camel 

In San Sebastián in the Basque Country, the traditional Three Kings parade – or cabalgata – got off to a bumpy start when Melchior fell off his camel. The video shows the king looking unstable on top of the animal before the camel suddenly bends down, throwing the king off. The accident meant that the other two kings had to take part in the parade alone while Melchior recovered. 

“Unforgivable” changes to Three Kings costumes

Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena (left) with the Three Kings. Photo: Ayuntamiento Madrid

Madrid brought in several changes to its Three Kings parade this year, including some jazzy new outfits, which definitely were not to everyone’s taste. The space-age inspired cloaks were likened to something worn by Merlin and the modest crowns were compared to those from Burger King, while the man who organized last year’s (conservative Popular Party) parade likened them to “shower curtains”.

Left wing mayor Manuela Carmena received a lot of flack on social media for the changes she made to the parade including a much-shared tweet from former conservative Popular Party MP Cayetana Alvarez Tol:

“My six-year-old daughter: “Mummy, Caspar’s outfit isn’t real.” I will never forgive you, Manuela Carmena. Never.” 

The hashtag #IwillneverforgiveyouCarmena went viral with over 11,000 retweets and 6,900 likes, but many people used it to make fun of Alvarez’s over-the-top reaction. 

As well as changing the costumes of the Three Kings, Carmena banned the use of real animals in the parade and used a real black man to play Balthasar, instead of the usual practise of having a white man black up with makeup for the role. 

The mayor herself commented on the furore in a tweet:

“The kings have brought me the opportunity to work for a more just and diverse Madrid. I would never forgive myself for doing the opposite.” Carmena included a little wink in her tweet, no doubt alluding to the original complaint from her conservative rival. 

The Three Wise… Women?

Traditionalists were equally as incensed by changes to Valencia’s annual parade, which included Three Queens instead of Three Kings. 

“They look like prostitutes straight out of a Western, but they’re the Three Queens in Valencia” the Spanish journalist Alfonso Rojo wrote in El Periodista Digital. 

School banned from parade for single sex classrooms

Children watching the Three Kings parade in Madrid. Photo: AFP

A school run by the Catholic organization Opus Dei was banned from taking part in Madrid’s parade because of the fact that it segregates its pupils by sex, causing many of the parents to complain that their children had been banned “for being Catholic”. 

In a statement, the mothers and fathers expressed their “disappointment” at the decision, saying they felt “discriminated” against.

But Madrid councillor for Health, Security and Emergencies, Javier Barbero, denied the claims. 

He said the city’s new left-wing Ahora Madrid council had barred the school from taking part in the parade because of its policy of segregating boys and girls. That is against the rules in the district, he argued. 

To black up or not to black up? That is the question

Because the Three Kings who take part in the parades across Spain were traditionally played by town councillors – and none are black – King Balthazar has always been played by a “blacked up” white man. 

But this year, Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena announced that the kings in Madrid's parade would be played by actors, allowing King Balthazar to be played by a real black man and ridding the parade of the usual controversy and accusations of racism. 

Not all Spanish towns have embraced this way of thinking, however. The parade in Alcoy – Spain's oldest Three Kings parade – features a troupe of blacked up pages who climb ladders and deliver presents. 

The king of football?

The chairman of Seville FC, José Castro, caused controversy when he played a blacked-up King Balthazar in Seville's Three Kings parade. It was not the blacking up that got under people's skin, however, but the fact that Castro added an unusual accessory to his king's outfit – a Seville FC scarf. He also sang football chants throughout the parade. 

“Balthazar's carriage full of football scarves is embarrassing. Castro is playing a wise man not a stupid football club,” wrote one Twitter user. 


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