Who brings presents in Spain? Santa Claus vs. the Three Kings: the endless battle

Throughout the world, Santa Claus has many names: Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, Father Ice…. What does not change regardless the country you find yourself in is the figure of the big old man, dressed in a red suit and long white beard, who has become the most beloved Christmas character of all times. The legend of Santa Claus has been always surrounded by mystical stories and unsolved questions.

Saint Nicolas of Bari, as he was known

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Representation of Saint Nicholas of Bari. | Shutterstock

The story goes that Nicholas of Bari, who later became St. Nicholas, was born in the 4th century in Patara, a city in the district of Lycia, in what is now Turkey, into a wealthy family. Nicholas stood out for his kindness and generosity to the poor, always concerned for the others. While still very young, the boy lost his parents, victims of a plague, and became the heir to a big fortune. At the age of 19, Nicholas decided to give all his money to the needy and went to Mira with his uncle to dedicate himself to the priesthood.

There he was named bishop and became patron saint of Turkey, Greece and Russia. He was also named Patron Saint of sailors because, according to a story, when some of them were in the middle of a terrible storm at sea and saw themselves lost, they began to pray and ask God for the saint’s help, and the waters calmed down. St. Nicholas died on December 6, 345. Since that date is very close to Christmas, it was decided that this saint was the perfect figure to give gifts and treats to children on Christmas Day. Since the 6th century, temples began to be built in his honour and in 1087 his remains were taken to Bari, Italy.

Santa Claus comes from Alicante, according to a theory born in the Netherlands

Santa Claus

The Dutch celebrate the arrival of Santa Claus. | Shutterstock

Another theory, rather strange, has to do with a Spanish city: Alicante. Some Dutch started to say that Saint Nicholas came from this Mediterranean city. Tradition has it that among the places that St. Nicholas visited to preach the word of God is the beautiful Alicante. So much so that, in fact, St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of Alicante. It is celebrated every year, by the way, on December 6, although in the Spanish geography it has been overshadowed by the Constitution Day.

It seems that St. Nicholas did have a relationship with Alicante and this was taken note of in the Netherlands, where they began to believe that Santa Claus’ gifts did not pass through the maritime customs of the North Pole but through Spanish ones. Dutch legend has it that every night of December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day, this good man left the port of Alicante with a ship full of tangerines and oranges from the Alicante orchard, as well as cookies and toys for children. Today it is one of the most popular festivals in the Netherlands. It is known as Sinterklaas, the feast of St. Nicholas. So… according to this theory, Santa Claus comes from Alicante, or this is what the Dutch believe, at least.

Enthusiasm or just a marketing campaign?

Santa Claus Village

Santa Claus Village, Rovaniemi, in Lapland, Finland. | Shutterstock

The figure of Santa Claus, with the sleigh, reindeer and gift bags is actualy an American invention. They were also responsible for extending that image that we have today of Santa Claus: dressed in red, with a black belt and boots. Almost becoming a marketing campaign, Santa Claus has survived and become stronger every year, making companies to use its figure to reach a greater audience.

In Spain, however, there has been always a fight whether to adopt this tradition. Many families have resisted to take his figure and tradition, but it has increasingly grown in Spain, and year after year, more and more homes celebrate the Christmas Day with Santa Claus coming and leaving gifts to the Spanish children. However, it has not shadowed the real reason for enthusiasm among the Spanish children: the Three Kings, or the Three Wise Men, a tradition that has been celebrated in Spain for years.

The Three Kings shadow Santa Claus every Spanish Christmas


Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth, according to the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. | Shutterstock

It is well known that the figures of the Three Kings are very extended in Spain and some other countries like Venezuela or Mexico. But… what is the real origin of this legend, and why the Three Kings leave presents in Spanish houses every night of the 5th January? On January 6, the Three Kings Day is celebrated in several countries of the world to commemorate the adoration of the Child Jesus by the Three Wise Men, who came from the East to honour and bring gifts to the newborn. They are a symbol that recognizes Jesus Christ as King and the only savior of humanity.

This day constitutes the end of the Christmas period in many countries of the world, especially in Spanish-speaking countries. Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar were the Three Kings who came from distant lands to deliver rich gifts such as gold, frankincense and myrrh, to honor the king of kings: Jesus of Nazareth. According to ancient representations of the Kings, they were shown in Persian costumes, holding the offerings with their hands, so they have been represented like this for centuries since then. From the 9th century onwards they were depicted as Kings, with crowns adorning their heads.

Since the 15th century they represent the whole of humanity. According to the scriptures of the Bible it is known that the Three Kings were in Jerusalem to see Herod and ask him about the “King of the Jews” who had just been born, guided by a star in the sky. Herod asked his priests about this fact, who confirmed that, according to the prophecy, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. He then asked the Kings that once they found the Child he would come to worship him. Faced with a revelation in a dream about King Herod’s intentions, the Kings took another way back after going to see the newborn and worship him, avoiding passing through Jerusalem again. They arrived and offered him gold, frankincense and myrrh.

A tradition that is still very alive

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Three Kings’ parades are magical and fill the Spanish streets with hope and joy. | Shutterstock

From the 19th century onwards, the tradition of giving gifts to children on the night of Epiphany began in Spain. In 1866 the first Three Kings’ parade was held in Alcoy (Alicante), whose tradition spread to the rest of the country, being adopted this tradition in other countries of Hispanic culture.

Since then, parades have been taking place all over Spain, some bigger and more spectacular, and some smaller and less known, but all of them full of children’s enthusiasm. Whether it is under the tree, in the stairs outside the house, or just standing beautifully on the table, presents shine in Spanish houses when the sun rises the 6th January. The rest of the day, Spanish children play with their new toys, go to their families’ houses to collect gifts from other members of the family, and spread their happiness through Spain. Despite Santa Claus’ figure trying to enter Spanish homes during years, the Three Kings’ tradition have not and will not disappear, at least for now.

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