Here come the Reyes: part two

Last week was Reyes, the day Spanish kids most look forward to the whole year, because it means PRESENTS!

The Reyes Magos – Baltazar (Moor), Melchior (white beard) and Gaspar (the other one, although just to confuse, our Gaspar also had flowing facial hair). They, along with the Reina (Queen), ride around the local town or city in style on specially decorated floats, with their helpers, throwing caramelos (sweets – in this case, the small boiled types – why do you think there are so many dental clinics in Spain?), footballs, and small Chino-type toys into the crowd. (Presents proper are delivered to your house by the Reyes that night, who arrive on their camels, so it’s nice to leave out some refreshment – a glass of milk.)

Floats are usually colour-themed, or take popular TV characters. These snaps are of our town’s Reyes offering; next year, I’m planning to decamp to Seville, which has 34 floats, to our five (smurfs – the Spanish love their pitufos). Think local amateur theatre v West End musical. Equal amount of enthusiasm and imagination, but on a different scale, with a much bigger budget (yes, austerity, blah, but this is the biggest cabalgata - parade – of the year. Happy, wowed citizens on Reyes is an essential element of the political agenda).

And one very happy little boy – which is what it’s all about, after all.

Sail the high seas, high-tech style

On 2 January, Seville got another new museum. The Pabellon de la Navegacion was originally built for Expo 92; outside were moored the replicas of Columbus’ three boats, the Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria (now in a special dock at La Rabida in Huelva – due a blog post from a visit I made last year).

Now the pavilion has been refurbished, and reopened as a museum (although that term for me has fusty overtones – discovery centre is more like it) of Atlantic exploration – about the ships which sailed from Spain (indeed, many from Seville itself) in search of the New World, carrying missionaries, merchants and explorers – from the late 15th century onwards.

The "sea of lights", which illuminates section by section, creating a wave effect - much more wow than it sounds (or, indeed, looks in this photo).

The first thing you notice is the sea of lights, which you walk into as soon as you arrive.  It’s an extraordinary sight - an undulating mass of black stems, with LED bulbs at their tips, which light up and then go dark in swathes, creating an effect of constantly moving swells, waves forming - so you feel as it you’re surrounded – enveloped – by the ocean.

These form the basis of the first part of the space (Sala 1), which has a curved, wood-beamed ceiling, like a ship. Among the sweeping lights, you can find tales of various voyagers, based on actual people who travelled the oceans centuries ago.

Dominican missionary Fray Tomas, who set sail for the New World in 1544, complains about the mistreatment and lack of respect shown to him and his fellow brothers by the sailors - it was so hot, dirty and uncomfortable, and with such little food, that it was "like hell". Not sure the natives they tried to convert, burning them at the stake if they refused, would have agreed.

These stories are told in delightful animated versions (so much better than cheesy reconstructions using actors), on large screens hanging from the ceiling, which look like they’re floating above the sea of lights (see photo, third above). Every audio feature, and information panel, is available in both English and Spanish.

"Raise the mainsail!" My son experiences life as a cabin boy.

Some are accompanied by typical ship’s features which you have to operate to get the film to start (I had a willing participant, which saved me the bother).

Zac listens to marine adventures - through an illuminated bottle.

You can also listen to modern-day seagoers, (fictional, including a cruise-ship passenger, and a man who travelled in a patera from Africa) whose tales are heard through bottles. You hold them to your ear to hear their voices – a wonderfully simple (and nautical) but effective idea, even if the glass is a bit heavy for younger children to hold onto for too long.

"Poo - yucky, Mum!" - Zac smells the stinky bodies of the captain's cabin.

As well as watching and listening to shipboard tales, other sense are stimulated, with boxes (at child height – it’s been very well thought-out) offering olefactory experiences such as tar, and the captain’s cabin (men unwashed for months).

The model ships you can see were also in the Pabellon in its first encarnation, during Expo 92, which lends a pleasing sense of continuity, as many pavilions were demolished, or left to ruin.

The screens of the historical maritime-themed video games (with benches for you sit down and watch).

But the most popular area with my son was the video games. On a huge panel at the far end of the space, along the back wall (Sala 3: Life on Board), are five screens.

The bilge-pump game - use some muscle to get the water out of the ship as fast as you can.

Each has a ship-themed game, operated by a shipboard device: the (steering) wheel, the bilge pump, the falconete (gun – operated by a button, rather than trigger), the rigging, and the capstan – a winding device used to lift heavy loads, such as the ship’s anchor.

"Hard aport!" My daughter tries out her navigations skills - the corresponding screen wasn't working, but that didn't bother her. (Bet that game is great.)

Sadly, the first screen, with the wheel, wasn’t operational when we visited – this was only the third day of the pavilion being open, so it’s normal to have some hiccups. I noticed a staff member walking around, checking how all the exhibits were running, and making notes on his iPad. The impression was of people who take their job seriously, not necessarily a given here in Andalucia.

Zac takes out some pirates - "Toma ya!"

No prizes for guessing which one my small tester made a beeline for – what little boy doesn’t want to shoot pirates? Each game has a timer and score, so you can see how you’re doing, as well as – thoughtful touch this, a bench for siblings or friends waiting to take a go, or parents wanting to take a load off.

The last area, Sala 4, entitled “Historic Views of Seville”, with two screens, was not operating when we visited.

After  leaving the pavilion, you head to the river to go up the tower, which offers amazing views up and down the river, and over the city. More in my next blog post.

The royal postperson comes to town: “Is it cos I is black?”

Belen (nativity scene) showing the three Reyes Magos arriving on their camels.

On 6 January the Reyes Magos (Three Wise Men, or Three Kings) visit towns and villages throughout Spain, arriving by helicopter, boat, elephant or camel, depending on the extent of each ayuntamiento (town hall)’s budget deficit. This is the biggest day of the year for Spanish children – Santa Claus is also celebrated, so the lucky little tinkers get a double dose of presents, and us parents get a double whammy on our wallets – but Reyes is the biggie.

But before the day itself, there is another important event: the arrival of the Reyes Magos’ cartero/a (postperson), to collect letters from the children. S/he is accompanied by a number of colourfully attired pajes (attendants).

Pajes, or attendants, of the Cartera Real. Yes, their faces are painted black - just wait till you see the Reyes themselves.

We had the good fortune to stumble upon this happy pageant on the way back from a family lunch in the local town this afternoon – our first day back from Christmas in the UK. I was in my usual post-leaving-parents vile mood (I don’t cry for my Mummy, but I do miss my family so much it hurts), plus our internet is down again which served to compound my malas pulgas (I am only writing this thanks to my life-saving, beloved iPhone). So the fun and noise of such a joyous celebration blew away my black clouds, as well as keeping the kids entertained for a good while.

This old train repair shed has been refurbished as a hall for the hermandad which organised the visit of the Cartera Real.

For those not familiar with the who, what and where, the cartero/a real comes to town a few days before his/her bosses, the Reyes (6 January) to collect the letters from the children, who tell them how good they’ve been this year (truthfully of course – Spanish embellishing the truth? Never!), and ask for the presents they would like the Reyes to bring them. In case you’re wondering why I’m being so gender-unspecific, it’s because since our cartera was a cartera, then I can’t blanket masculinise all the carteras out there, even though that’s what they do here.

The Cartera Real (Royal Postlady) takes a letter from a small, happy girl, for special delivery to the Reyes Magos - the post box is next to the paje on the right.

This Cartera Real sat on her splendid plywood throne, backed by swathes of regal red fabric, and flanked by lackeys (pajes). Other lackeys accompanied the little cabalgata (procession) – once Postlady Pat(ricia) had heard all the petitions, she and her two chief pajes climbed onto a cart embellished with a big silver star and, preceded by a band which played mournful Semana Santa-type tunes jazzed (cheered) up by fast drum-beating, made their way through the town, along with the all-important letter box, carrying the childrens’ missives for the Reyes Magos.

Setting off to take a turn around the town in one's carriage, under a shining star.

Drums and other paraphernalia of the band - it's all about the rhythm, man.

The pajes – of various ages – blow whistles, lending the procession an air of jolly reverence, and Caribbean party vibe, thanks to the rhythmical beats.

One of the strangest aspects of the Reyes celebrations is that, although women leading roles,  political correctness doesn’t extend to race – almost all of the participants are blacked up. In a few places, they actually hire people whose skin is naturally that colour, though mostly not. Most countries wouldn’t even allow it. Do you find it offensive?

The royal postbox - carrying the dreams of many small people.

Short video of The Cartera Real procession, January 2012 – to get you into the spirit!

Wreathed in smiles: how to green your front door

More of a sprig-fest than a wreath – if you look closely, half-hidden behind the fluffy white beard, you can see the face of…. Father Christmas!

This year in my parents’ village, I’ve noticed more Christmas wreaths than previous years – many people’s front doors are adorned with greenery (ivy, holly, pine branches) decorated with pine cones, fruit (apples, pears, berries), shiny baubles, and a touch of gold or silver, creating jolly, colourful, welcoming numbers which announce your style, saying: “This is my take on festive cheer – I’m traditional/quirky/chic/minimalist”.

The village is medieval, so all the houses (and their front doors) are different anyway – some lean drunkenly to the left, some veer to the right, and some topple forward perilously. So they don’t really need to look individual, since they already are. But the wreaths add to the (very English) idea that our home is our castle.

Apples, ivy, holly, pine cones and silver tinsel with a light dusting of snow.


I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these in Seville – they wouldn’t last five seconds before being half-inched. I remember making one years ago for my house in London, from gypsophilia - frothy and white, simple but pretty - following instructions from the Waitrose magazine (I worked for the publishing company). For someone as cack-handed with handicraft-type stuff as me, it came out OK. A little bald in places, but not too bad. That was my first, and last, attempt.

Here are some examples of the wreaths I’ve seen on one of our many family tire-out-the-kids-strolls around the village this Christmas.

Hydrangea blooms - never seen them in a Christmas wreath before, but they look great with these red berries.

A traditional number, with some festive red balls and a wacking great bow.

This one reminds me of a laurel wreath, as worn by Roman emperors. Very natural, love the warm earth tones accented with gold.

Gold pears and a nude-coloured satin bow - simple and classy.

One of my favourites: gingerbread men and hearts made of candy sticks, plus gingham and gold sparkly ribbon - pretty and original. Someone put a lot of effort into this.

My ultimate favourite: not round, and possibly more at home on Valentine's Day or a war memorial, but I love this heart-shaped wreath made of red flowers - dramatic and glamorous, a real statement.

I love Christmas decorations! Have you got a wreath on your door?  Which one would you choose for your house?

Happy Christmas!


The tree chez Watson: we have the recycled-every-year variety.

I’ve nearly finished wrapping the presents (actually, my husband has), and it’s now the 25th, so it’s time to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas.

Wherever you are and whoever you’re with, I hope you have a wonderful day filled with lots of lovely pressies and delicious food. And music, and games, and fun with family and friends. But most importantly, no work – a day off (that’s the best bit, especially if you’re freelance)!!