Christmas traditions: Saint Nicholas in Poland and the Three Kings in Spain


19 December, 2016

Xmas 2017

December 6th is a special day for all Polish children because it is the day when Saint Nicholas (Święty Mikołaj) comes bringing gifts to them. He knows exactly what their wishes are. To avoid being disappointed on the morning of his arrival, children send him letters describing in detail what they wish for. There is a common saying in Poland, St. Nicholas will only visit those who have been good throughout the year.

image of St Nicholas in Sina
A 13th-century depiction of St. Nicholas from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, in Mount Sinai. Source: Wikipedia.

However, why is St. Nicholas not visiting the Spanish houses on December 6? Is it a kind of punishment for bad behaviour or is it just because of lack of time?

Spanish children will receive their gifts, but not on December 6th, and certainly not on December 25th.

Although the Anglo-Saxon custom of giving presents on December 25th is becoming increasingly popular in Spain, the day that has always been considered dedicated to Spanish children is January 6th, a month later than in Poland.

Three Kings vs. Santa
Despite Santa is gaining popularity in Spain, the Three Kings are still the favourites for Spaniard children.

January 6th is a Christmas-related celebration that is, in fact, part of Biblical history. The Three Kings Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, the “Kings of the East” (aka The Magi or The Three Wise Men), who, more than 2,000 years ago, gave baby Jesus gold, incense and myrrh, have not suffered from high unemployment rates due to the economic recession. They are still in charge of the important task of bringing gifts to little Spaniards.

According to tradition, those who have misbehaved last year will receive coal – which, by the way, is a sweet that is visually similar to coal but prepared with sugar and water with a black alimentary dye.

Some people also give it to good children as a warning so they know what can happen if next year they do not behave properly.

In Poland, January 6th is more a Catholic celebration, during which Polish people participate in the afternoon mass to bless their homes and have them protected against bad things. They usually write with chalk on the door “C + M + B = (and the current year)”. The letters here are an abbreviation of the Latin phrase Christus Mansionem Benedicat, which means “May Jesus Christ bless this house”.

Another version relates those three letters with the initials of the names of three kings (Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar), but there is no special celebration.

In Spain, they do celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings (Reyes Magos). During the weeks before January 6th, children prepare their letters to the Three Kings, and they give them in person to their assistants (pajes). On January 5th in the evening, the Three Kings arrive in the Spanish cities on a traditional parade called the cavalcades (cabalgata). Together with their assistants, they throw sweets into the crowd of children that are watching them on the street, and you can see the tonnes of gifts on their floats, including all the toys children asked for on their letters. On the night of January 5th, children clean their shoes to proof that they have been good children and leave milk and food for the Kings and their camels so that they can have a snack on such a busy night.

The Cabalgata de Reyes Magos celebrated on January 5th in Alcoy (Alicante, Spain) is considered to be the oldest in Spain and perhaps the oldest in the world. In the picture below, you can see a cabalgata in Churra, Murcia, back in 1956.

cabalgata in Churra, Murcia, Spain
Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos in Churra, Murcia, in 1956. Source: Wikipedia

Modern times brought us colourful cavalcades, like this one in Malaga.

cavalcades in Malaga
Cavalcades in Malaga, 2015. Source:

As mentioned before, it is becoming increasingly popular to give presents on December 25. However, I do not think that Santa Claus will ever replace the Three Kings in Spain.

Christmas traditions, a mixture of biblical history and pagan celebrations that are important to know when you translate, since language, history and traditions are part of the culture of a country that may be distant to the target culture.

Culture, Jensen Localization

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