Monday, 5 January 2009

Baltazar Does Sahagún: or The Best Holiday Ever (So Far)

Buckle up those safety belts, kiddos... it´s Kiddie Night in Sahagún, and the Three Kings are rollin´ into town.

Spain´s very long holiday season peaks right now with a holiday called Los Tres Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day. It´s celebrated all over Spain the way Christmas is marked in other places, with children opening packages under a Christmas tree, parades, candy, family gatherings and lots of goodies. That´s not to say the Spaniards don´t also celebrate Christmas, but that is still more a religious holiday. New Year´s Eve is, well, an all-night adult revel that only gets started at about 1 a.m. The Three Kings -- a holiday known otherwise as Epiphany -- is when the gift-giving happens, and the kiddies really cash in.

The classic Spanish Three Kings Celebration features local men dressed up as Gaspar, Baltazar, and Melchior, the three "wise men" who brought gifts for the baby Jesus soon after his birth. On the evening before Epiphany they ride into town on fine horses, tossing candy and small toys to the cheering crowds of children -- it´s a parade known as a "Cabalgata," the same word as "Cavalcade." Elyn, our American friend who lived in Sahagún 25 years ago, said she remembers just such a celebration back then, with the three costumed characters riding out of a misty night into the lit-up Plaza Mayor. The following morning the children awoke to find what treasures "the three kings" brought them during the night.

But times change, and so has the Cabalgata. Apparently, sometime in the past quarter-century, the Wise Men joined the Sahagún Chamber of Commerce. And tonight the celebration wasn´t just a kiddie delight. It was a display of what makes Sahagún unique.

Sahagún´s a stop on the main trans-national railroad line, and its railway station is its pride and joy. (Just try catching a bus around here.) Sahagun´s got several tractor dealers. It´s got theater groups for the youth that are well-endowed with colorful costumes and theatrical sets and special effects. All the kids in the youth theater groups have dads and moms and sisters and brothers anxious to take part. And Sahagún is, apparently, not burdened with killjoy safety rules.

And so, at 7:15 p.m. The Three Kings Express pulled up on Track One at the fine train station, and dozens of sugar-charged children dashed to the edge of the platform to meet it. The center-car doors shushed open, and out stepped Baltazar, Gaspar, and Melchior, along with several "attendants" in full dress uniform. Which is to say they all sparkled in curly long wigs and beards, robes of faintly Egyptian or Oriental cut, and blackface.

Yes, blackface. Somehow, no authentic black man could be found to portray Baltazar, the Wise Man from Africa. (There are black men around. Every Saturday market brings African immigrants to town to sell "Chanel" and "YSL"sunglasses and purses, but it´s assumed they are all Muslims, and thus not interested in enacting proto-Christian myths. Or maybe nobody thought to ask them.) So the guy from the feed store, well... You know what he did. And what most of his "attendants" did, too. They did an Al Jolson, and they enjoyed it. And they´ll do it again next year, too, innocent of any whiff of political correctness.

The Big Three waded through the gangs of shrieking children and picture-taking parents ´round to the train station parking lot, where they joined a throng of costumed kiddies: tiny Tuts, Cleopatras, Centurions, lambs, shepherds, and assorted local ethnic dresses too. The crowd divided itself slowly as each king mounted a gleaming plywood float with his monogram atop, seated himself on a throne, and was joined there in the transformed farm-wagon by adorable children decked in matching attire and clutching bags of candy and confetti.

Finally, after Mary and Joseph and The Babe fought their way onto the first float, the Heavenly Host were assembled alongside and the Roman Guard (several pre-pubescent cherubs with long, flowing hair and real, flaming torches) took their places up front of the parade. And at some invisible signal, the gentlemen started their engines. Four powerful John Deere tractors slid into first gear, and the Cabalgata started the long, slow march down Calle Constitucion to the Plaza.

Grandparents cheered. The kiddies on the floats threw candy and streamers. The tractors roared, the cameras flashed, the torches flamed, and everyone along the sidewalks -- moms, dads, teens, toddlers, gnarled bachelor farmers -- ducked and dived and grabbed for the sweets that clattered and bounced down from above.

It was a jolly event alright, and I wonder how we managed to miss it our first two years here. We followed the floats as far as the Codorniz, then doubled back to Elyn and Gary´s place over by the cheese factory, taking it easy for the sake of Paddy´s foot. There the Four Foreigners feasted on Roscon de Reyes, a monster fluffy cake full of cream and tiny hidden toys, and talked of Christmas Past and Present.

Sure, in America we´ve got eight tiny reindeer and Jolly Old St. Nicolas and Frosty the Snowman... sometimes we even slip a little Baby Jesus in there. But Spain´s imported as much of that stuff as it wants. After we do Christmas and New Year´s Eve we go back to work... and the Spaniards keep right on celebrating for another week. And this holiday´s got so much: Multicolored guys in crowns on the 7:15 from Grajal, tractor rides, wild costumes, a parade, candy, cream cakes, flaming torches right down the main street, and a present at the end for every kid in town.

Forget what I said at first about safety belts -- it´s Tres Reyes! There´s no early bedtime tonight, and another day off work tomorrow!


laurie said...

I really enjoyed this post, Rebekah. You are so gifted at capturing the feeling of what you experience in Spain. Thank you for letting us enjoy it as well.

I was surprised to see that your Roscon had little toys in it. In Lisbon, they consume a very similar bolo de rei, and I thought I had heard that the EU made them take out the toys for safety reason, just giving all the naysayers a great example of ridiculous bureaucracy to add to their list of complaints.

Gary White said...

Yes, Rebekah, I enjoyed your recounting of the night, particularly because Elyn and I shared it with you and Paddy. It is great to have neighbors to share things with here in the heart of Spain.

Virginia said...

Ohhh...what fun...why don't we celebrate this holiday in the USA? I miss visit from the 3 kings. Thanks for posting the word picture.

Check out my Facebook for an account of our adventures bworking on the Donate Life float for the Rosebowl Parade. Great parade - lots of marching bands...but no candy-scrambling...

Off to Walk my Pooch