I didn't grow up celebrating Christmas and to-date I never have.
I remember being confused as a child about how Santa Claus fit into the holiday and if there was some connection between Santa Claus and Jesus. I've not really found a good answer to that more than the Coca-Cola Company's marketing of an icy beverage in the middle of winter. Don't get me wrong, I love Christmastime in the US when houses are decorated with lights and trees, and people tend to both smile and make eye-contact more. I've completely bought into the perfection of a Norman Rockwell Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, but Santa still seems ancillary to celebrating Jesus' birth.
Several weeks back, Lucia and I were talking about her family celebrations over the holidays. She said that Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) and Christmas Day (Día de Navidad) families get together, perhaps go to church, eat, but she never mentioned presents. Having already discussed Black Friday sales in Spain (it's a new phenomenon there), I knew that she had made some purchases, so I asked if they opened gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
I was shocked to learn that gifts aren't exchanged until the 12th Day of Christmas, Epiphany in the States, but in Spain it is known as either Reyes Magos or Día de los Reyes Magos (for those that don't know, Epiphany is a Christian holiday that celebrates the day that the three wise men brought gifts to Jesus and where his divinity is revealed).
In Spain, Reyes Magos is a day of tremendous celebration and gift-giving. Beginning the evening before, there are gorgeous parades in every city and village. From what Lucia has told me, everyone pours out of their homes to crowd the streets to see the parade, the highlight of which is the arrival by camels of the three Reyes Magos who throw candy and small gifts to the gathered crowds.
Overnight the children set their shoes by their beds and leave out sweets and hay for the Reyes Magos and their camels, hoping that in the morning the Kings will have brought them the presents they requested (children send their letters to the Magi, not to Santa). For that part of me that couldn't integrate Santa Claus into Christmas, Reyes Magos makes a whole lot of sense.
In the morning children rip into the gifts that were left in their shoes and celebrate with a traditional cake called Roscón de Reyes (Kings' Ring), though theirs is slightly different than what you find in a New Orleans pre-Mardi Gras King Cake.
So much is available to us--through social media, 24-hour news, and global retailers--that we sense the world as homogenized, but I am looking forward to finding the things that make our new home country unique.
Felíz Día de los Reyes Magos!