There is a serious, and barely socially distanced, shopping frenzy occurring right now on Gran Canaria, and not a reindeer in sight; yet these are the last throes of the most magical time of the year in the Canary Islands, and for many kids, throughout Spain, aged 1 to 99. T’is the last few days of the season to be jolly.

 

 

The long-observed holiday season tradition, here, and its modern equivalents, supersede and often outshine those of the more northerly European, commercially Americanised and christianised, Yule time pagan legends, many of which, in colder climes, tell of a benevolent, sometimes mischievous and goaty old man of the forest, possibly Finnish, latterly German, and older than Jesus, secretly delivering gifts and toys to good little children on the eve of the now central December 25 holiday.

Finland’s Joulupukki was originally naughty, but now he’s nice…

Mixed up with these tales are the subsequent Roman catholic stories of the originally Turkish-born Saint Nicholas, the 3rd-century Bishop of Myra, who travelled in red robes giving gifts to the poor, in particular children. He was said to have secretly dropped coins down the chimneys of families with little money, where they landed in stockings being warmed by the fire, and who nowadays morphs into that very same red-robed and chuckling, benevolent Father Santa Klaus character who flies around the world in a single night, straight from his elven Lapland workshops, on a magical reindeer-drawn sleigh.

Courtesy of the BBC

Until a certain sugary fizz-drink company got hold of him, and painted him in red to match their marketing, he originally wore green; more in line with the ancient Nordic and Celtic winter solstice practices of bringing evergreens indoors, and gathering around a burning log fire that warmed and lit the long winter nights, as families and villages communally feasted on slaughtered beasts, during the colder, darker months of the year, when the sun seemed more distant than ever and nothing else grew, so as to all wish together for the first blooms of spring, which would herald the verdant return of growth and light and nourishment once again.

Fervent Romans, who’d transmuted their own festival of Saturnalia, changed that tale too, assuming control of the narrative. Here, however, by far the more prominently celebrated story is of Los Reyes Magos, the Magi, known in English as the Three Wise Men or Kings.

This is a tale of three noble pilgrims, bearded strangers in a strange land, weary travellers, depicted resplendent in colourful robes and the scholarly Persian turbans so-long associated with royalty. They arrive from the east, possibly from where modern day Iran is now, having traversed desert sands, and borne by camels, they followed a comet, a brightly burning star, to bring gifts, and pay homage, to a newborn migrant child in what is now modern day Israel. A regal babe sheltered in a lowly stable, lovingly nurtured by his gentle mother and humble father, and watched over from above.

The Three Magi – Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, from a late-6th-century mosaic at the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy

They all find themselves in Bethlehem, a town which had been named in honour of the more ancient Mesopotamian fertility god Laḫmu, himself too originally depicted as a bearded man wearing bright red.

As luck would have it, to this day, these migrant wise men magically supply gifts to all good christians, and lucky children too, on the morning of the Day of the Epiphany, visiting in secret while all is quiet and everyone asleep, which is of course the 12th night, or the eve of the 6th day of January, a national holiday throughout Spain and much of the Romano-Mediterranean world, uniting the diverse cultures that surrounded their “Mare Nostrum“, a tradition that spread much further than they could ever have imagined at the time these tales began to be repeated.

Melchor, Gaspar and Baltazar bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These days they more usually arrive to Street Parades, in every major town, as they are celebrated across Gran Canaria on the 5th, the Noche de Los Reyes Magos, though this year most municipalities have opted for the Three Kings to drive, in a socially distanced manner, around the various neighbourhoods to wave to expectant children hoping for a peek at the passing Persians.

Every little one, and some not so little, will each have feverishly penned a letter over recent days and weeks to express their love and gratitude, and importantly their desires, hoping, by morning, for a wrapped package or or two of sweet delights, games, gifts and (for some at least) glittering gadgets, deposited secretly in the night, using the magic keys to every child’s home supplied every year by the mayors of each town hall for the purpose of bringing light and joy into the hearts of each and every child, loved one, believer and dreamer… before the holiday season officially comes to an end.

Then, in a day or three, back to work and school once more, safe in the knowledge that the mystical bearded men from afar, not to mention the local rulers, and mummy and daddy and everyone who likes a sugary treat, has truly felt the illumination of another holiday to remember.  And a memorable affair it can be, though of course this year promises to be a little more staid than usual, but then perhaps it will also be closer to its original intention, a gathering of the nearest and dearest, filled with hope for the coming spring.

Remember! Thursday, 6 January 2022 is a bank holiday in Spain.