Living in the countryside of central Spain in the early sixties felt magical for 8-year-old me. I still remember our home address: Patrocinio (he who gives his protection), Gomez (man) Tres (three), Canillejas (a region 5 miles northeast of Madrid). Although roving bands of gypsies traveled in tattered wagons through the countryside, these fast-change artists didn’t bother our little home. Dad thought that was because we had a black poodle (Pepino), and the gypsies believed black animals are agents of the devil. I believed him but I also believed my neighbor Maria, who said we were protected by the man called Jesus.
My sisters and I soon learned that Spaniards loved kids. Our dirt-poor neighbors taught us Spanish and fed us hard bread, figs and chocolate. We explored crumbling castle ruins a few hills from our home, rode The Tramvia (tram) for fifty centavos (5 cents) anywhere and everywhere in Madrid, remembering to look away when men urinated on the smelly street. But according to Maria, our adventures weren’t nearly as magical as the epiphany of The Magi, meaning skilled magicians or astrologers, was for Catholic Spain.
I asked my Mom, who let me attend church with Maria, about the epiphany. She read me the story in Matthew 2:1-12: Kings Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar, following a bright star prophesied to lead to the new king of the Jews, traveled from Europe, Africa, and Arabia on camels. They brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Herod spoke to the Magi secretly, saying, “Search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
My favorite part of the story was where the wise men, having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, returned to their country by another route. A prophetic dream! How very wonderful. Was that what was meant by an epiphany?
Mom said, although the dream was a message from God, for most Christians Epiphany refers to the first manifestation of the divine nature of the baby Jesus and is marked by a celebration on January 6. However, the word “epiphany” has a different meaning: a sudden flash of understanding or insight.
This conversation happened a few days after the New Year. Spanish children place their shoes outside the front door on January 5th, and await the arrival of gifts the next day. Mom said I could also put my shoes outside the door as long as I scrubbed them clean first.
I wanted to take my mind away from our precious poodle Pepino, who was at the vets with a deep cut in his leg from a wild pig. So I took soap and water to my shoes and scrubbed hard and long, and my sisters did the same with theirs.
We awaited the Magi’s gifts to be placed in our shoes with as much anticipation as we’d awaited Santa Claus’ arrival on Christmas Eve. It felt like having a second Christmas just twelve days after the first, with less presents and folderol, and more holiness.
January 6 dawned snowy and cold. Awake before the others, I snuck to the front door and opened it. Sitting in my shoe was a little crystal angel dangling from a silver chain wrapped around a $20 bill. I gasped. But what was this? A little girl’s hand with dirt beneath the fingernails tugged on the chain. Wrapped around the tongue of the shoe, the chain didn’t budge. She grabbed the bill. Startled by me, she stared, and crunched down, afraid.
I looked into the brown eyes of a gypsy girl about my age. “Por favor, senorita,” she whispered, “Necessito dinero.” Please, Miss. I need money.
I yanked the chain free from the shoe, placed the angel on a chain around her thin neck, on top of her long thick black hair. “Vaya con Dios.” I said. Go with God. I didn’t know what else to say.
The little girl kissed my hand and cried, “Gracias a Dios.” Thanks be to God. She ran down the stairs, through the front gate, and out of my sight.
I pressed my hand to my cheek. Moments later, my mom opened the door. Her mouth dropped at the sight of my empty shoes and my bare neck. I told her what happened.
“Know what?” I said. “I feel like that angel’s hanging around my neck.”
Her eyes were bright. “That’s quite an epiphany.”
All I could do was nod and cry. She hugged me and I hugged her back. We stepped inside the house.
Ever since then, my shoes wait outside my front door on the eve of Epiphany, hoping for another gift from The Magi.