As Filipinos, we pride ourselves in having the longest Christmas season in the world—a period that begins with the 1st day of Simbang Gabi on December 15, and ending officially the liturgical holidays on the Feast of the Three Kings, January 6. It is also known as the Feast of the Epiphany, marking the appearance of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the three royals—who wereactually not Kings, but Magis or Wise Men.
As a school kid in the 60s, I always looked forward to my over-extended vacation for it meant not just weeks of do-nothing days, but it also gave me more chances to receive gifts!! As every ninong and ninang knows, the Aldo ning Atlung Ari gives them the last opportunity to dispense gifts and Aguinaldo to their ina-anaks. The long holiday gives them no excuse to be remiss in their gift-giving duties, lest they are branded as “kuriput” or “makunat”.
Indeed, it was not just Santa Claus who was looked at as the official purveyor of gifts; the Three Kings too, were regarded in Spain as bearers of generous treats and gifts. After all, the three made the long travel to Bethlehem to present the newborn Jesus with gold, myrrh and frankincense, thus, starting a tradition of gift-giving.
This tradition is still alive and well in Madrid, where the arrival of Melchor, Gaspar and Balthazar from the East was eagerly awaited by children. Melchor was depicted as a hoary man with a long grey beard while Gaspar was known as the ‘white one’ with his closely-cropped blonde beard. Balthazar, the lord of treasure, was known for his swarthy complexion.
On the eve of their feast day, the 3 Kings take to the streets of Madrid, accompanied by a cavalcade of soldiers in a parade full of Oriental fantasy, pomp and splendor. The evening procession begins at Retiro and circles the residential areas where kids have placed their shoes on the window sill, in hopes of having them filled with presents the next day. This tradition has caught on in some provinces in the country, particularly in Nueva Ecija where the Three Kings are the acknowledged patrons of Gapan. Children also leave their shoes out so that they will be filled with money or candy. In America, the shoe has been replaced with stockings.
Club Español, an organization of civic-minded Spanish-descent members and Hispanophiles, has also helped perpetuate this custom in the Philippines by holding its own “Dia De Los Reyes”, capped with a festive parade of the 3 Kings distributing presents to indigent children.
The Feast of the 3 Kings has been moved to the first Sunday of January, which caused the instant shortening of the Philippine Christmas break. The present generation barely knows the significance of ”Aldo Atlung Ari”, and elsewhere in the country, it has become a hybrid celebration, known also as “Pasko ng Matatanda”, a day to pay respect to senior citizens.