Sunday, January 05, 2014

We Three Kings Of Orient Are

When I was small, the Christmas morning sack - and it was a sack - used to contain, buried at the bottom, an orange. It was a tradition, one which, as small children, we went along with. Thank you for the orange, we would parrot, and then ignore it and turn our attention to the altogether more interesting booty that Santa had delivered, having picked up the goodies from the local Woolworths over the preceding few weeks. The orange was symbolic of Christmases past. All we got for Christmas was an orange, if we were lucky, my parents would explain. That was rather sad, we thought, but we also began to question the truth of the explanation in similar ways as we began to question the notion of the "bone in the leg" when a reluctant older relative declined the invitation to kick a football about or the chances of actually discovering Australia if we dug a hole deep enough.

Unlike the impossibility of suddenly finding ourselves confronted by a kangaroo, the orange explanation was of course accurate. Christmases past did mean an orange and/or an apple and/or a tangerine and/or a piece of coal.

Much as we make distinctions between Anglo-Saxon traditions of present-giving at Christmas and the Spanish preference for Three Kings, the actual present, in historical terms, was essentially the same, and the history of present-giving austerity was the same. The present-giving days may have been separated by slightly less than a fortnight, but just as there was a time when Christmas in Britain meant an orange and very little else, so Kings also meant an orange and very little else.

But arguably, the British orange tradition was borrowed from the Spanish. It was basically a tradition of war times when oranges and other fruit were in short supply and were, as such, a luxury. In Mallorca, by contrast, there was no real shortage. Oranges as Christmas presents were very much in vogue regardless of wars. They weren't luxuries so much as a reflection of a simpler era and of an era when the common man could stretch to no more than an orange or a lump of coal.

Go back to the inter-war years of the 1920s and 1930s and Three Kings in a Mallorcan style meant gifts of chocolate sweets (or one sweet), carob, a couple of oranges and the inevitable coal. Alternatives were "carbón dulce", the sugary lump coloured black, and for children who had been particularly good, a couple of ensaimadas. A pair of shoes was a real treat, as was a rag doll or a tin toy car.

In the villages of Mallorca, back in the day, shoes filled with beans were placed in the windows of houses. The beans were intended for the Kings' horses (nowadays the shoes serve a different function; for the Kings to fill them with gifts). But in a similar way to Santa Claus and Rudolph, there were no actual Kings and no actual horses. Despite their having been make-believe and despite the miserly nature of the gifts, the night of 5 January was one of great anticipation, and the following morning there would be talk as to whether the Kings and their horses had been heard.

It was to be quite some years later that the children (and indeed adults) of Mallorca's villages were to actually set sight on Kings and on the pages who provide the warm-up act a couple of days before. It is now taken as the norm and as the tradition of Three Kings that the Kings pass from house to house or dispense gifts from town halls, but their physical presence, in the villages and small towns at any rate, is a relatively recent phenomenon.

And this physical presence occurs in different ways. The arrival of the Kings all depends on where you are. My main experience of the Kings is of their coming into the old pier in Alcúdia on board the glass-bottomed boat, a means of travel which doesn't quite chime with any known tradition. But clearly the Kings have to arrive somehow, and in the coastal towns, the best way, it has been deemed, is by sea. For the old town of Alcúdia, the arrival is different. It is as part of the parade that forms in the port, pauses for a time at the port's church and then makes its way on the short journey into the town.

The parades do of course differ. Only Palma does a parade on anything like a grand scale. There again, Palma's parade was among the first and most famous of the "cabalgatas". The tradition of the parade had started in the town of Alcoy in the Alicante province in 1866, but it wasn't to be until the 1920s that it really started to catch on, and Barcelona and Palma were to the fore. Compared with Palma, parades elsewhere are more low-key but they still have their own special feel of anticipation and excitement. In Alcúdia, this is heightened by following the parade as it heads away from the port and into the old town where the Kings eventually appear on the balcony of the town hall before handing out the goods.

It is a world away from how Three Kings used to be. From the days when there were no Kings as such and when the best a kid could hope for was an orange or an ensaimada. From the days when Kings were much like Christmas in Britain. But now there is one very big difference to a British Christmas: the arrivals of the Kings, the parades, the spectacular and the excitement. A recent tradition perhaps but winter wonderful nevertheless.

And finally, you will know that there is a very small village in Mallorca called Orient. Before all the parades, the arrivals by boat and all the more recent traditions, the children of the neighbouring villages knew where the Kings came from: the hamlet of Orient. But how was it that the children of Orient and the nearby villages never saw the Kings? This was because they took their horses into the mountains, to let them graze and grow strong before they rode once again on the fifth of January. And this, everyone, is a true story of local folklore. Happy Kings!

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