Being a child in Spain at Christmas used to be a relatively straightforward affair.
At some point in December you wrote a letter to the Three Wise Men - or los Reyes, the Kings, as they are known here – with your requests for presents. If you were lucky they would be delivered not on December 25th, but on January 6th, Epiphany.
This is the day that Balthazar and co. hand over their offerings to the infant Jesus in the Bible, so to the junior Spanish mind it makes perfect sense for it to be the day that los Reyes tramp around Spain on camelback, giving out goodies or, if you have been especially disobedient, a lump of coal. Father Christmas, a.k.a. Santa Claus, a roguish character also known under other aliases, was a northern impostor – a Protestant invention of dubious provenance. But in recent years Father Christmas has been expanding his territory.
Just like Disney and Hollywood and McDonald's and Hallowe'en and all the other English-speaking stormtroopers in the battle for cultural domination, he is keen to establish a global brand.
He can be spotted in many a Spanish department store, handing out sweets and whittling away at parents' determination to resist his blandishments. Small inflatable versions can be seen climbing ropes suspended from balcony railings (since most Spanish homes lack chimneys, this seems to be his preferred mode of gaining access, proving that he is nothing if not ingenious).
The big question is: what are the Three Wise Men going to do about this challenge to their traditional monopoly? My suggestion that they all meet in the car park of the largest department store in Madrid and have an almighty punch up, thereby settling the matter once and for all, has for some reason not met with universal acclaim. In the meantime parents are faced with a very real dilemma. You have to decide whether yours is a household visited by los Reyes, or by Father Christmas, or – this is where the eyes of department store owners really start twinkling – by both. Whilst this is the most painful on the wallet, it is this third option that is becoming increasingly popular.
One problem with los Reyes is their timing: by delivering their presents on January 6th, right at the end of the holidays, they give children precious little time to enjoy their gifts before they have to go back to school. In their favour they bring sackloads of cultural tradition, a certain amount of biblical credibility and the not insignificant fact that they are simply more interesting than the bearded fatty. They each have their own names, for a start, and if ethnic diversity is your thing they are not all uniformly white. Then there is their mode of transport. The eyebrows of even this incurable cynic quivered momentarily when three be-turbaned gents regally paraded down Gran Via on the backs of live camels last year.
In our family, which has been in Spain since 2002 and consists of an English father, Spanish mother and a hybrid four year-old, we tip our hats to both customs. All the presents from British relatives arrive on Christmas Day, and Santa always makes an appearance too.
This is the trigger for ringing three aunts and one granddad back in Blighty and concerted, usually vain, attempts to induce the hybrid to wish them a happy Christmas. He doesn't understand the full significance of Christmas, I sometimes feel. Having lived most of his four years on Spanish soil, this is not entirely surprising. Q: What would Christmas be without turkey and mince pies? A: a typical Christmas in Spain. Twelve days later comes round two, with presents from the Spanish relatives and offerings from the Orient.
No doubt there is a certain amount of copping out in this, an element of taking the easiest option. One day we are going to have to explain why we conspired not just in one great big fib, but in two. If he's got any sense it will be a long time before he starts questioning the reality of any of them.