Celebrate With 'Los peces en el río'

Song is Christmas tradition in Spanish-speaking countries

Los peces en el río
Peces. (Fishes.).

Mike Johnston / Creative Commons

One of the most popular Christmas carols written in Spanish is Los peces en el río, although it is little known outside of Spain and Latin America. It draws a contrast between between the fishes in the river, who are excited about the birth of the baby Jesus, and the Virgin Mary, who goes about doing the chores of daily life. The writer of the song is unknown, although the tune shows Arabic influence.

The carol isn't standardized — some versions include several more verses than the ones listed below, and some of them vary slightly in the words used. Lyrics of one popular version are shown below along with a fairly literal English translation and a singable interpretation.

Los peces en el río

La Virgen se está peinando
entre cortina y cortina.
Los cabellos son de oro
y el peine de plata fina.
Pero mira cómo beben
los peces en el río.
Pero mira cómo beben
por ver a Dios nacido.
Beben y beben
y vuelven a beber.
Los peces en el río
por ver a Dios nacer.
La Virgen lava pañales
y los tiende en el romero,
los pajarillos cantando,
y el romero floreciendo.
La Virgen se está lavando
con un poco de jabón.
Se le han picado las manos,
manos de mi corazón.


The Fishes in the River (Translation of Los peces en el río)

The Virgin is combing her hair
between the curtains.
Her hairs are of gold
and the comb of fine silver.
But look at how the fishes
in the river drink.
But look how they drink
in order to see God born.
They drink and they drink
and they return to drink,
the fishes in the river,
to see God being born.
The Virgin washes diapers
and hangs them on the rosemary,
the birdies singing
and the rosemary flowering.
The virgin is washing herself
with a little bit of soap.
Her hands have been irritated,
the hands of my heart.

The Fishes in the River (Singable Interpretation of Los peces en el río)

The Virgin Mary combs her precious hair
as she gives thanks for her baby.
Even she cannot understand why
God chose her to be a mother.
But fishes in the river,
they are so delighted.
The fishes in the river,
to see the birth of God.
See how they swim and swim
and then they swim some more.
The fishes in the river,
to see the Savior born.
The Virgin Mary washes swaddling clothes
and hangs them on the rose bush
While birds of the air sing in praise
and the roses begin their blooming.
The Virgin Mary washes precious hands,
hands to take care of the baby
How I'm in awe of those busy, busy hands,
hands to take care of my Savior.

(English lyrics by Gerald Erichsen. All rights reserved.)

Vocabulary and Grammar Notes

Se está peinando is an example of a reflexive verb in a continuous or progressive tense. Peinar usually means to comb, rake, or cut something; in the reflexive form, it typically refers to combing one's hair.

Entre is a common preposition usually meaning "between" or "among."

Cabellos is the plural of cabello, a lesser-used and more formal synonym of pelo, meaning "hair." It can be used both as a reference to individual hairs or the entire head of hair. Cabello is related to cabeza, a word for the head.

Beber is a very common verb meaning "to drink."

Mira is a direct informal command from the verb mirar. "¡Mira!" is a very common way of saying, "Look!"

Nacido is the past participle of nacer.

Vuelven comes from the verb volver. Although volver usually means "to return," volver a is usually a way of saying that something occurs again.

Romero comes from the Latin ros maris, from where English gets the word "rosemary." Romero can also refer to a pilgrim, but in that case romero comes from the name of the city of Rome.

Pajarillo is a diminutive form of pájaro, the word for bird. It could refer to any small bird or a bird that is thought of affectionately.

Se le han picado is an example of a reflexive verb used in a passive sense. The subject of the sentence (las manos) here follows the verb phrase; the sentence could be literally translated as "the hands have bitten themselves."

Mano is one of the very few nouns that runs counter to the rules of gender by being feminine while ending in o.