Is it 12th night tonight? Or was it last night?


Most people know that, where Christmas is concerned, the festive tree and all decorations should be taken down either on or before 12th night or, according to superstition, you could be in for some bad luck. But, the big question is, when exactly is that day?

Opinions are divided between those who start counting the 12 on Christmas Day itself and those who say it is 12 days after Christmas. That means it was either last night January 5 or tonight January 6.

The supporters of the 5th tend to say that as today is the Feast of Epiphany, the decorations should have been removed last night while proponents of the 6th say that, as Epiphany is the day that the Three Kings or wise men arrived with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, that should be 12th night.

There does not seem to be any definitive answer. Even churches differ as to when they choose to remove their trees and decorations. Those that choose to keep them until the 6th can then use their cribs to show the arrival of the Three Kings. All reasonably-sized cribs seem to have the Kings as characters, so that would lead us all to believe they should be used right up to the 6th. If not, why include those characters at all?christmas tree

Of course this is all a matter of both Christianity and superstition, neither of which affects me. This is because, while I do follow a religious faith, it is not Christianity nor any other that is popularly regarded as a mainstream religion for that matter, and I do not think of myself as being superstitious.

For me, 12th night is tonight 6th January, because that is the way it always has been in my family. When I was a child, the tree and decorations were always taken down on the 6th. That date is not, for me, guided by religion or superstition, it is just a matter of tradition.

Whether that tradition is itself founded on my parents’ Christian beliefs, or their susceptibility to superstition, is another matter entirely. In any event, family tradition dictates that our Yule tree and decorations will always be removed on January 6.


Three Kings visit Spanish towns this evening

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Christmas or Navidad reaches its traditional climax this evening with the arrival of Los Reyes (the Three Kings) in almost every city, town and village, ahead of the national public holiday tomorrow, January 6. This marks the Christian festival of Epiphany, when according to the bible the kings, having followed the star, arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

In Spain, the Kings arrive and then make their annual parade which usually starts at dusk and goes through the centre of urban areas. Our local town parade, in Cuevas del Almanzora, starts at 5pm. It is organised by the Hermandad (Brotherhood) de la Virgen del Carmen de los Reyes.

And if you thought that Santa was everywhere, the Three Kings Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar (the African king) are able to appear simultaneously throughout Spain as evening falls on the Iberian Peninsula. Now, that’s powerful magic!

Their royal majesties don’t come empty handed. As they parade about towns with their entourage of locals smiling and waving from trucks, trailers and even floats they dutifully toss out handfuls of sweets to the children waiting in the streets as they pass.

Tonight, children are supposed to leave their shoes out to receive the gifts in the same way as other children hang up stockings for Father Christmas to fill. These children often send notes to the Kings, not Santa. These days, however, more families are turning to the Christmas tree as the place to pile gifts as the Kings’ spending power grows and shoes can no longer support the weight or volume of their delivery.

Some families set up their nativity scene in such a way as to be able to move the images of the wise men closer and closer to Bethlehem over the Christmas season. The idea is to have them arrive at the stable right on the 6th.

Breakfast is a special occasion on January 6 with the Three Kings’ Cake the centre of attention. This is a sweet bread that is adorned with dried fruits and sugar. Inside, bakers have hidden a small prize wrapped in paper as well as a bean. The one who finds the lucky prize is supposed to be King or Queen for the day while the one who ends up with the unlucky bean is traditionally expected to pay for next year’s Kings’ Cake – and considering that some of these cakes go for about 20 times the price of a loaf of regular, unsweetened bread (if you buy at a bakery instead of the supermarket), that could be an unhappy lot.

Tomorrow is a very special day throughout Spain as it is a day for families to come together for a special meal, gift exchanges and time together. It is very much like Christmas Day in North America or northern European countries.

Both Christmas Day and January 6 are getting about equal celebration with the children’s gifts often divided between the two days – except in families on the ‘No Santa’ side of the debate who persist in clinging to the old traditions thus making the kids wait until that very last day of the Christmas holidays for their presents.

Feliz dia de Magos Reyes – Happy Three Kings’ Day.

Christmas in Spain so unlike USA or UK

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As the festive season approaches, it looks like Lisa and I will experience a totally different Christmas this year, especially since Santa Claus in Spain is called Papa Noel and he does not bring toys to children like he does elsewhere.

The gift bringers of the Spanish Christmas are the Three Wise Men or Los Tres Reyes Magos. This happens on Three Kings’ Day – January 6.

Spain is a deeply religious country in which Christianity, and in particular the Roman Catholic church, is predominant. It should come as no real surprise, therefore, that it has a noticeably different approach towards Christmas than in countries such as the USA or the UK.

Here in Spain, Christmas is not such a huge commercial event. Town centre Christmas lights are not usually lit until the first week of December, by which time shops are well stocked with seasonal goodies. However, it is nothing like other places where the build-up begins as early as September.

At home, Christmas trees are a common sight but they don’t tend to make an appearance until the second half of December. Also, emphasizing the religious importance of the festival, very many homes will have miniature nativity scenes called Belénes. These depict life in Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Jesus and each Belén always includes the key characters of the nativity – the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph as well as the Three Kings, Baltasar, Melchior and Gaspar.

Being such a Christian country, it may be surprising that the traditional seasonal celebrations have pagan roots. On the winter solstice, or shortest day, which is also the pagan festival of Yule, the celebration of Hogueras (bonfires) takes place. This involves people jumping through fires to protect themselves against illness. Pagans have a long tradition of including bonfires as an important part of their Yule celebrations.

Throughout Spain people will not be far from a TV or radio on December 22 as the Christmas lottery is drawn over a period of many hours. Most people seem to buy tickets in the hope of winning El Gordo (the fat one) and the winning number usually means that a good number of people from the same village become a lot better off overnight. As well as three large prizes there are thousands of smaller ones.

Christmas Eve is called Nochebuena (Goodnight) and it is the most important family gathering of the year. In the evening people often meet early for a few drinks with friends then return home to enjoy a meal with the family. This is the main festive meal, which is followed by a trip to church for the Midnight Mass ceremony.

Children may receive a small gift on Nochebuena or on the morning of Christmas Day but the real day for presents is January 6, Epiphany, when the Three Kings brought their gifts to Jesus and, today, bring gifts for the children. In fact, children write letters to the Three Kings, like UK and USA children write to Santa. To children in Spain, the Three Kings are more important than Santa.

Christmas Day is, of course, a national holiday in Spain so shops are closed but it is not a day of great celebration but rather a calm day after the major family festivity the previous evening. There’s another large family meal for lunch or, maybe, it’s time to eat out in the afternoon.