Around the world, Christians and Christian-based cultures light candles against the darkness in a one-two punch. Christmas trees, lights, and presents brighten the darkness for children, and on New Year’s, many adults get lit themselves.

Most celebrants of these double-festivities grudgingly go back to work January 2, waiting eleven months for the yuletide season to instill warmth again during the coldest nights.

Not in Spain, where work can just wait while the country has an encore holiday. Good things come in threes, so while stores in other countries return to non-holiday hours after the turn of the calendar, Spain keeps the party rolling, with the big finish on January 6th, or Epiphany/Three Kings Day.  

Christmas and New Year’s are still big celebrations here. Christmas Eve is a time when most families gather and celebrate with, as always, a big family dinner.  Christmas Day is set aside for low-key get-togethers. Children may receive a small gift or two, but the big present day is yet to  come.

Similarly, New Year’s Eve is reserved for a family meal till perhaps 10:00 pm, and then many gather in the Town Square to collective insure a great (or grape) year.

It’s a Spanish Thing

Epiphany is variously recognized as the day Jesus revealed himself as God Incarnate or Jesus’ Baptism, but for many in Western Christianity the day marks when the three kings/wise men came before Jesus bearing their three famous gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  

Borrowing from the gift-giving theme, in Spain this is the big pay-off day for children getting gifts, the children having mostly eschewed Santa the prior month to write letters to the three kings, requesting the kings drop off gifts for them as they pass through town. The children leave food, water, and even hay for the camels the night before.

In fact, still today more Spanish children look to the three Kings for their gifts than to Santa. Perhaps, it’s because the Reyes Magos are hometown heros, as Pope Benedict XVI asserted that he believed they came from Andalusia!

Whether the three kings came from southern Spain (though they obviously did!), Epiphany matches Christmas and New Year’s by starting the celebration on the night before, with a huge parade of stilt walkers, bands, even dancing churros and chickens.

There is still something about floats that is exciting. There are many here, built by private groups, with the big three reserved for the three Kings, each of whom has their own section of the parade as they come to town bringing their gifts for baby Jesus and all children.

Think of it as a family-friendly Mardi Gras.

The kings and their cavalcades throw sweets as they walk or ride on floats through the city center. There are many floats, bands, and around 10,000 kgs of sweets thrown out in the Granada parade. It’s one of the oldest such parades in Spain, going on now for more than 100 years.

Can you have paradise without a parade?

We went out to the parade to join in the celebration for our first time. People of all ages lined the streets, all eager to get a glimpse of the kings. Arriving over an hour before, in freezing weather, we still had to tightly squeeze in between eager families. The children lined either side of the street while holding big plastic bags, anticipating a rainstorm of candy.

Our spot was next to a young girl who jumped up and down in excited anticipation. On our other side, a man about our age was holding what looked like his granddaughter, bouncing her and whispering in her ear while her father held another child on his shoulders. We all smiled and bonded waiting for magic to come walking down the street.

The parade arrived at our location around 8 pm. Three Kings, separated by thirds in the parade line, threw candy into the crowd, who used everything from plastic bags to upside-down umbrellas to try and catch as many sweets as possible. We raised our bags, shouting pleas to pelt us with candy.

Depending on the accuracy of  the throwers, some fell into our bags and some onto the street. The young girl and Jiab picked up candy that fell to the ground, creating a joint venture of collection. They took turns putting scooped up treats in each other’s bags throughout the parade till, by the end, both ended up with bags half full of candy. Jiab eventually donated all of her collection to make the girl’s bag full, paid for by a squeal, a big smile, and the joy on the girl’s face.

Warmth in the Cold

The entire scene of hundreds of people, grouped by families in a collective multitude of joy, was an extreme contrast to the night before (Epiphany eve eve) for us.

The night before the parade, we watched a movie “Life Itself.” While the movie was rated poorly on Rotten Tomatoes by critics (12%), the audience loved it (78%). Having never seen such a big difference between critics and audiences, we were intrigued.

In a nutshell, the movie is about family, many generations of one in particular. The movie’s theme was that life misleads us, as it paints one man a hero when he may well be a villain, or vice-versa. No one knows where his or her story is going (no matter how much they think they are in control), nor who the heroes in it are going to be. Maybe the big heroes and villains of our stories are actually just bit-players of the moment. It can all be confusing, disheartening, and as the movie said, “Life brings you to your knees. It brings you lower than you think you can go. But if you stand back up and move forward, if you go just a little farther, you will always find love.”

Cheesy, perhaps, but the movie hit us hard, like two kleenex box hard.

Our family is now spread across three continents, with each of our sons living thousands of miles away (bitter-sweetly reinforced by one of them coming in for a far too short visit). Meanwhile, several family members back in Thailand are ill or just had surgery, and we felt lost not being with any other family at holiday time.

The whole situation reinforced for us that the big negative of relocating was the loss of a sense of belonging. Our family, including the heroes that, to us, are our sons, and the villains that we ritually argue with at family dinners, are far away. It’s still an effort at times to make simple inquiries at a store, and we are still trying to connect with this new culture.

The enveloping early cold darkness of winter seemed to physically manifest what we were feeling at the moment, and to be honest, the last thing we felt like was standing in freezing weather, watching a parade about a religious/cultural event with which we were minimally connected.

But Jiab insisted we go, to keep “moving forward, and go just a little bit farther.”

So we went.

Stepping into the freezing cold, we found warmth we didn’t expect. There was a connectedness with all the people there who didn’t care whether this was our first or one hundredth parade, or whether we spoke the language or not.

We were all there to light the darkness one last time this season, by our collective good cheer and in a hail of candy.  We couldn’t be with the family we had, and though we still missed them, we now connected with the new families we were with.

The young girl next to us became the newest hero in our lives as we, together, scooped up candy and helped fill each other’s bags. She made us realize that family can be simply where and with whom you connect, if you just keep moving forward.

That was a good epiphany.

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