The Palma parades were certainly a feature by the 1920s | MANOLO BARRO

Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior. Other spellings, as they say, are available, while their order is rarely alphabetical. Melchior normally comes first, probably on account of having been the oldest - supposedly, because a great deal of supposition surrounds the Three Kings, including having been kings.

The Gospel of Matthew was equivocal as to who they were, where they came from, when they came and how many of them there actually were. The assumption was three because of the gifts, but Matthew wasn’t a great deal of use for the development of a longstanding Christmas tradition, until careful scrutiny of the Old Testament led religious scholars to put two and two together and conclude that some Magi priests from somewhere like modern-day Armenia (possibly) were in fact kings.

Isaiah, several centuries before Christ’s birth, had prophesied both kings and the bringing of gold and incense. They all apparently lived to a ripe old age - Melchior was 116 when he died on 1 January, 55AD; Caspar, 109, died on the eleventh of the same year; Balthasar, 112, died on January the sixth, 55AD. Granted sainthood by the Catholic Church, they have individual feast days and a collective one - Epiphany. Balthasar is thus celebrated twice over on the same day.

From a religious perspective, it is obvious enough why they are venerated, and in more secular terms it is clear how they came to be associated with gift-giving - Isaiah didn’t have much to say about myrrh; this was one of Matthew’s key contributions.

Less understandable is where the current-day gift tradition comes from or the fact that there are parades.

The days for the gifts differ, but the common source for the Kings and Father Christmas is almost certainly Saint Nicholas, the third-century orphan boy from present-day Turkey, who used an inheritance fortune to help children and the needy, who was transformed - by the Dutch in the thirteenth century - into a Santa Claus-type figure (long white beard), who crossed to America with pilgrims in the seventeenth century, and who established a period for the rich to help the poor of New York between his feast day (December 6) and New Year’s Day in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Drawing on the Dutch tradition, this laid the foundations for the idea of parents giving their children gifts rather than just the rich assisting the poor and also for American entrepreneurs to recognise a good thing when they were onto one. Santa was to bring presents and - by extension and imitation and in the absence of any other explanation - so also did the Kings.

So, much as we make distinctions between Anglo-Saxon traditions of gift-giving at Christmas and the Spanish preference for Three Kings, the history was essentially the same, as was the nature of gift-giving by the less well off - an orange and a lump of coal.
By inter-war years of the 1920s and 1930s, Three Kings in Mallorca 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. For children who had been particularly good, there were a couple of ensaimadas. A pair of shoes was a real treat, as was a rag doll or a tin toy car.

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. Except when there was a parade.

There is a theory that the first ever Kings parade was in Palma. It is one that has been presented but with limited or no evidence to back it up. This was supposedly some time around two hundred years ago. Palma town hall’s chronicles, what amount to a present-day and brief history of the city, contain absolutely no reference to this.

So theory is all it is, the accepted version being that the first ever parade was in Alcoy, Alicante in 1866.

The Palma parades were certainly a feature by the 1920s, but there is a question as to why the parades ever started. Although the Kings are saints, there’s little to suggest that the parades were driven by the Church. The concept of a parade may have been based on a procession to the adoration of Jesus, but this is about all there is to go on in religious terms.

The impression is, therefore, that the parades were far more, if not exclusively, a civil celebration. It’s not as if today, with the exception of parades that include an adoration, there is any religious element, while the status of Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior as saints is by the by.