Three Kings and Twelve Days of Christmas

Now and again while living overseas, we had a chance to participate in Christmas events as practiced locally: in Greece, Christmas was not much at all, in comparison to Easter - which in the Greek Orthodox tradition is huge: a week of observances, services, a day of feasting, new clothes . . . Compared to that, Christmas in Greece was relatively mind.

Christmas in Spain was a little closer to American tradition - not much, but still a larger part of religious and civic observances: the major department store in downtown Zaragoza, the Corte Ingles had decorated suitably, with Christmas trees and ornaments . . . but Santa did not come on Christmas Eve, bearing presents. Oh, no - In Spain the presents for good boys and girls arrive on Epiphany, the twelfth day of the storied Twelve Days of Christmas. Christmas is actually the first day of Christmas - and in days of yore, the Christmas holidays and feastings went on for the whole twelve days. So, it spreads out the celebrations, rather than cramming it all into one day. And Santa Claus does not deliver the presents: they are brought by the magi, the three wise men or kings; Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior, arrayed in splendid robes, and golden crowns and all the pomp and circumstance than can created by an organization, enterprise or civic municipality.

One of the years when we were stationed at Zaragoza Air Base, there were a number of tickets distributed among the parents of children for a visit by the Three Kings to the Spanish side of the base. At that time, the base was actually divided into two parts with an immensely long runway between: the USAF part, which served to support an air gunnery range, for squadrons stationed in Northern Europe to come down and practice in the better weather, and the Spanish Air Force part, which supported their equivalent of Air Transport/Military Airlift Command, or MATRA. Well, the officers and NCOs at MATRA were going to host a visit by the Three Kings for the dependent children - and American children were invited.

Traditionally, it seems that the Three Kings are to arrive on camels - but the Spanish Air Force went one better: all the children and their parents were lined up on the ramp behind a thin safety barrier, watching for a certain transport aircraft to arrive, engines roaring at a deafening pitch as it rolled up a little way from us. The ramp at the back of the aircraft went down, and out rolled an open jeep, with the Three Kings and their sacks of presents loaded awkwardly in the back. Whenever military Santa arrives - it's on or in the largest and noisiest bit of mechanized inventory available, and MATRA was no exception. The crowd of children and their parents followed the slowly moving jeep towards one of the mess halls on the Spanish side - although the Kings refrained from throwing wrapped candies until the flightline had been left well behind. The potential for foreign object damage, you know: small items getting sucked into jet engines does not make for a nice day.

After that, it was very much the same kind of drill: the children all lined up to get a small present from one of the Kings. My daughter got a jump-rope with wooden handles. And afterwards, there was another treat provided, of churros and chocolate for everyone - fried sweet fritters to dip into chocolate that was really more of a thin chocolate pudding. And it was wonderful - totally rich and indigestible, but wonderful. Just another Christmas tradition.