Thursday, January 6, 2011


The last event of the winter holiday season that began with Christmas ended today, 6 January, with Reis (Kings).  The three kings (or wise men) came from the East bearing gifts for the infant Jesus, and whereas some gifts may be given on Christmas, here the custom of giving gifts on this day still continues.

Santa is gaining a foothold here although he doesn’t climb chimneys so much as balconies, but it’s the kings who children write their letters to, asking for their presents.  If they’re good, they may get what they ask for, but if they’re bad, they get a piece of charcoal.  You find candy versions of the black stuff at all the pastry shops.

Other differences have to do with mode of transportation -- Kings don’t ride reindeer-led sleighs.    Camels being hard to come by around here, the three kings enter each town in a variety of ways.  In towns on the coast like Barcelona, Tarragona, or even here at little L’Ametlla de Mar, they sail into the port under a burst of fireworks.  In other towns they arrive by train, carriage, or even helicopter.  From wherever they arrive, they tour the town in a parade of floats, throwing candy to the waiting public, accompanied by local groups and horsemen, often mounted police.  The parades are big and grand and bring the whole town out onto the streets on the night before Kings.  As with Christmas, children wake up on the day of Kings to find the presents the Kings had left for them.

I’m neither Catalan nor Catholic, but since coming here to live, I’ve always tried to adopt the holidays or traditions I can, without giving up who I am.  For Reis, there were no gifts at my house, but I did have the traditional tortell de Reis – a ring pastry made of brioche dough, topped with candied fruit and stuffed, in my case, with marzipan, the most traditional of the stuffings, and my personal favorite.  What’s especially nice about the tortell de Reis is that stuffed into the stuffing are two important items.  You need to know this or you might break a tooth, chewing too enthusiastically and perhaps imprudently into your piece of coffeecake.  The first is a small figure of a king, made of plastic, or if you’ve gone to a better bakery, ceramic.  Whoever finds that in their slice is king for the day and gets to wear the crown that every bakery packs in with the cake.  The second is a fava bean.  Whoever finds that in their slice gets to pay for the tortell.

The tortell is eaten in the morning, washed down with cava (all celebrations are accompanied by cava) and then followed by coffee.  At least that is how I do it at my house and is what I did this morning.  My friends George, Dorothy, and Eve came over, being forewarned that whoever got the bean would pay for the tortell.  Eve got stuck with the bean, but the king stayed buried until after they left when I went to cut up the remaining cake in order to put it away.

The after-Christmas sales (so to speak) in Spain start the day after Reis -- tomorrow.  The run on the stores is huge and unpleasant so it will be a good day to stay home, admire my new little figurine, and eat leftover tortell.  There was no leftover cava.