Madrid Stories: You wait ages for a fiesta, and then three wise men all show up at once

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Celebrations carry on until tomorrow in Madrid's long winter festival of partying and gluttony, during which old and new traditions compete fiercely. Northern Europe focuses all its festive attentions on Christmas Day and Santa Claus, of course. Madrid, on the other hand, concentrates on the arrival, 12 days later, of the three wise men bearing gifts from the East.

Presents are traditionally not exchanged until Epiphany - 6 January - which barely leaves the children enough time to enjoy them before being bundled back to school.

Traditionalists reckon that the long build-up heightens the excitement on the day itself, but it's hardly surprising that Father Christmas, who delivers his goodies nearly a fortnight earlier, is gaining some ground.

Madrid's authorities none the less mounted the usual spectacular show to mark the city's most important fiesta. Some 27 splendid floats took three hours to pass through the capital, and Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar threw three tons of sweets to hundreds of thousands of ecstatic children along the route.

"And here comes Balthazar on his elephant!" yelped the TV commentator during the live broadcast of the procession, as if the blacked-up monarch were not a well-known town hall politician, albeit astride a real elephant.

An outsider may have wondered if the whole city had gone mad, so seamlessly do television, newspapers, politicians and everyone else collude in presenting the whole theatrical pageant as if it were real.

The expert who gives the employment statistics on morning radio was called upon to explain how the Three Kings could visit 11 million children nationwide in one night. He replied, deadpan: "Well, they travel at 11,000km per second, but according to Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty and the ability of atoms to be in two places simultaneously they can actually make numerous visits at once."

Adult Madrileños don't have a problem suspending their disbelief. "It's a collective collusion to construct a fantasy for our children's pleasure. Just look at their faces. Who is cruel enough to break that spell?" says a friend who remembers her own enchantment at the arrival of the kings.

One father of small children says celebrating Reyes keeps an ancient Madrid tradition alive in the face of Anglo-Saxon imports like Father Christmas. "But my children are getting older," he sighs. "Next year I'll probably have to admit I've been lying to them. I don't look forward to that."

The demands of Reyes dictate the whole holiday timetable: sales can't begin until the gift-buying frenzy is exhausted at midnight on the 5th. The 6th is a public holiday. Celebrations, studded with vast family meals, are spun out to the point at which most people are now sated.

Blame Emperor Carlos V, who in 1542 decreed "major fiestas" to be celebrated from Christmas Eve to Epiphany inclusive, "for the maximum solemnisation of the birth of our Lord" - and to stiffen the loyalty of his Catholic subjects against Protestant heresies.

¿ Drilling has resumed after days of silence. Some 500km of roadworks were dug last year, which means that if all the trenches were strung together they'd reach Seville. Even the town hall admits digging is out of control. No sooner are roads freshly paved than they're churned up again to dig a tunnel or insert a cable. Local newspapers offer a city-wide "roadworks guide". It runs to several pages.

Danny de Vito once observed on a visit: "I don't know what treasure they're digging for here, but I sure hope they find it." Others fear the city, riddled like a Swiss cheese, may fall in on itself. The other day a huge gap yawned in the road where I live. It's casually covered with metal plates, over which traffic clanks alarmingly, while we wait for the drillers to fill it in.