Learn Christmas Song ‘Los Peces en el Río’ in Spanish and English

Popular carol is seasonal 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.

According to the Valencian news site Las Provincias, both the author and composer of Los peces en el río, and even when it was written, are unknown. The song gained popularity in the second half of the 20th century, and the structure and tonality of the song show 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.

ESTRIBILLO:
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.

ESTRIBILLO

La Virgen se está lavando
con un poco de jabón.
Se le han picado las manos,
manos de mi corazón.

ESTRIBILLO

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.

CHORUS:
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 blooming.flowering

CHORUS
The virgin is washing herself
with a little bit of soap.
Her hands have been irritated,
the hands of my heart.

CHORUS

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.

CHORUS:
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 swime
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.

CHORUS

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.

CHORUS

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

Vocabulary and Grammar Notes

Los peces en el río: In standard Spanish, only the first word of titles of songs and other compositions is capitalized, except for words that are always capitalized, such as proper nouns.

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!"

Por is another common preposition. It is used in many ways, one of them, as here, to indicate the reason the motive or reason for doing something. Thus por ver can mean "in order to see."

Nacido is the past participle of nacer, meaning "to be born."

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.

Cantando and floreciendo (as well as peinando in the first line) are the gerunds of cantar (to sing) and florecer (to flower or bloom) respectively. They are used here as adjectives, which is uncommon in standard Spanish prose but is often done in poetry and picture captions.

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.