In my Catalan childhood Christmas was a time of manger scenes (the manger left empty until midnight Mass, when the long-awaited Baby was placed in it); ancient carols (some of them funny, having to do with misbehaving shepherds); and my favorite dessert, turrons d’Alicant, the almond nougat bars that required a hammer to break them into individual portions.
Gifts were out of the question until January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany, el dia dels Reis. The night before, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar guided by a star came swaying atop their camels to leave gifts on the balconies of apartment houses all over Barcelona.
As the days after Christmas passed—the feast of the Holy Innocents, those poor babies slaughtered by paranoid Herod; the feast of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr–my anticipation grew. It was the culmination of a months’ long pregnancy-like state, which began every autumn with my spotting the doll of my dreams in the window of a toy shop.
Like a lover, I would bring up this doll in every conversation, point her out to my mother whenever we passed the toy store, and meditate on her every night before going to sleep. Finally, towards the end of Advent, I would write my letter to the three Kings, humbly imploring them to bring me my longed-for child.
After that, it was out of my hands, and all I could do was pray and wait until the night of January 5th, when the ceremony of “the laying of the trays” took place.
There were two of these trays, one for the balcony of my grandparents’ apartment, and one for our own balcony. First, we went to my grandparents. After my grandmother finished entreating my father not to kill himself by working so hard; my father’s younger sisters asked his opinion about some musical performance they’d just heard on the radio; and everyone had a glass of sherry “because it was such a cold night,” I was buttoned into my stiff winter coat and my grandfather flung open the balcony.
My father would lead me out on the balcony and point toward the heavens. “You see that bright star up there? That, I am almost certain, is the star of the Three Kings. It is especially bright to help the camels find our balconies tonight.”
My little black-clad grandmother (she had just lost her eldest son to cancer and malnutrition following the Spanish Civil War) would totter in on her high heels, bearing the tray, which held a dish with three pieces of nougat for the Magi and another with three leaves of lettuce for the camels. She handed me the tray, I set it down carefully on the balcony floor, and we all knelt while my grandfather led us in an Our Father.
Back in our apartment, my parents and I laid out another tray and, after another Our Father, I was sent to bed. There I would lie in a fever of excitement only equaled by what I experienced the night before my daughters’ births. Would the Reis really come, and would I find my doll, my child, on one of those trays in the morning?
Despite the anticipation, I always managed to fall asleep. But one year—I must have been five or six—I awoke in the dark and saw, standing at the foot of my bed, none other than Balthasar, el rei moro, the Moorish king, the most exotic of the three. He had a thin face and dark brown skin, and wore a turban and robe of a fine, scintillating green material. I still remember the look of otherworldly kindness in his eyes.
Although my night visitation only happened once, in the morning there was always the doll. One year it was a rubber doll with a hole in her mouth and another between her thighs. I could pour water out of a tiny baby bottle into the mouth and then experience the thrill of changing diapers. Another year it was a Black doll, dressed in ruffled white organdy. And one year there were two dolls, Pituco and Pituca, with arms and legs made of a spongy material that could be bent in all directions.
Those dolls were, without exception, infant or toddler dolls on which I could vent my maternal instincts and practice for what everyone anticipated would be my future career. If someone had handed me a doll with breasts and hips and feet in tiny high-heeled shoes I wouldn’t have known what to do with her. The last thing that Barbie looks like she needs is a mother.
The year I turned eleven we were living in Ecuador. That Christmas there were no grandparents, no turrons or manger scenes. No laying of trays on January 5th. I was growing faster than my mother could let down the hems of my dresses, and puberty was around the corner. My mother thought it was time to have a talk.
“You do realize,” she said, “that the gifts of the Magi actually come from the parents?”
“Sure,” I said. “I know. Of course.”
But I was appalled. Appalled that that world of ceremony, mystery, and feverish anticipation–and also the world in which I was la nena, the center of a watchful, loving circle of grandparents and aunts and uncles–had suddenly vanished forever.
And I was embarrassed, of course, that I was eleven years old and starting to grow breasts and my mother had had to break the news about the Magi. But I was a backward kid, reluctant to grow up. I wonder now if my mother felt sad to dash my illusions, or if she was irritated by my stubborn naivety.
Either way, she did what she had to do, and I’m grateful she spoke up. But around this time of year I always wonder what it would be like to wake up in the night and once again see the Moorish King standing at the foot of my bed.