Christmas in Spain
Unlike many other places in Europe, Christmas lights generally go up in Spain in December. Every town and city decorates the streets. Christmas markets also begin to appear, Christmas trees on sale everywhere and gypsies begin to sell trees on the streets. The first major sign of Christmas is the state-run Lottery, which is drawn on 22nd December. The “El Gordo” (the fat one) is one of the largest lotteries in the world and thousands of people win each year.
In general, Christmas in Spain is based more on a religious theme than in many other places. Churches are packed to capacity day and night.
For most Spaniards there are three main stages to Christmas, starting with Christmas Eve that is very much a family affair. The evening generally starts at home but often ends up with a party in a hotel, club or disco with family and friends. It is very likely that every generation of the family will be represented.
The family Christmas Eve meal is one of the most important meals of the year for the Spanish family. Seafood is high on the list for the meal and prices tend to go through the roof this time of year. First on the menu is likely to be cold shellfish and cold cuts of meat. This may be followed by soup then baked besugo (Bream) with potatoes followed by roast lamb or suckling pig. Game is another option although turkey is becoming more popular. The meal is always complemented with Cava, Spain’s excellent sparkling wine. At the same time trays of Christmas cakes and sweets will be served. The important sweets are turrón and marzipan. Turrón is nougat made of toasted sweet almonds and has been made in Spain for over five centuries.
After the meal the adults will then exchange presents. The children will usually receive only a small gift. At midnight many people will go to Midnight Mass at the church. Others may stay at home and open a bottle of champagne to celebrate the birth of Christ. Some children may go carol singing whilst the youngsters will go to bed leaving the adults to party till dawn.
Every town and most churches will have a ‘Belen’, which is a nativity display. Some of these are very impressive, and some are animated and illuminated, drawing huge crowds.
Christmas Day is a fiesta so all banks and shops are closed, probably to recover from the night before. Christmas Day in Spain is probably one of the quietest of the year. Anyone wanting to eat out on this special day will most certainly have to book in advance.
New Year’s Eve is big in Spain and on New Year’s Eve it is the tradition to wear red underwear, (representing “Love”) but they have to be bought for you by somebody else. Most towns will have a street party with entertainment and firework displays that last all night. Most bars and restaurants are open for private parties only. There will be music and dancing and the wearing of usual party outfits. At the stroke of midnight it is the tradition to eat 12 grapes – one on each stroke of the clock - to bring good luck for the New Year.
Spain has many unique traditions, all of which are great fun. On the 5th January a special cake is made and sold all over Spain. Rosca de Reyes is a ring-shaped pastry (tasting similar to hot cross bun mixture), covered in sugar and fruit flavour jellies. On biting, beware; the cake may contain plastic toys as presents. Anyone lucky enough to find one of the hidden charms will be blessed with good luck for the New Year.
The next most important day is the 6th January or Three Kings (Los Reyes Magos). This is the day that the Three Kings arrived in Bethlehem; it is also the most important day for the children as the Three Kings in effect replace Father Christmas children (although Santa is becoming popular). They arrive overnight on the 5th January where tons of sweets will be thrown from the passing floats, much to the joy of the children (and adults). The atmosphere is electric. On the morning of 6th January, the children open their gifts.
The Three Kings
On 5 January Spain celebrates the end of Christmas with a great party where everybody gives and receives presents. It is to celebrate the arrival of the Three Wise Men - Melchior Caspar and Balthazar - to the city where Jesus was born. In the same way that the Three Wise Men gave gifts to baby Christ, here they share out presents amongst children around Spain - in fact; they are more popular than Santa Claus.
There are lots of processions of the Three Wise Men in each city, the children go along with their parents to see the kings and receive sweets from them, before going to sleep that night all the children put some milk, and biscuits next to the Christmas tree for the Three Kings, and some water for their camels, they also leave out their best pair of shoes to be filled with presents.
On the next day, 6 January children wake up and see how many presents they have received. If they have been good, they will find a lot of good presents but if they have been naughty they will find coal. These days, the coal is actually made of sugar, but some years ago it was real coal.
During the day, all families enjoy a piece of Roscon (a sugar-frosted fruit and fondant filled bread) this is eaten at breakfast, tradition says that the person who finds a novelty such as a coin, in his or her portion will have good luck for the next year, similar to the six pence in a Christmas Pudding.
There are many different ways to celebrate New Year’s Eve, or Nochevieja which means ‘The Old Night’ in Spain, but there is just one tradition which everyone takes part in. If you want to be part of this custom you must buy 12 grapes and be ready to eat them when the clock strikes midnight. If you can eat one grape per chime you can look forward to a year of happiness and luck. Spanish people usually eat the 12 grapes at home with their families or go to one of the main city squares.
On New Year’s Eve in Spain and after dinner with close family or friends, preparations start for midnight, making sure that everyone has twelve grapes each, as well as a glass of Cava to welcome in the New Year. In Spain while the clock is striking midnight it is customary to eat one grape with each of the chimes, until the New Year is in then its party time normally until the early hours of New Years Day.
Others prefer to go to a main square and each town has one to celebrate New Year’s Eve live music and entertainment is provided, party goers take their own bottles of Cava and tins of grapes specially done for New Years celebrations, (the liveliest of all the squares is reputedly Pun del Sal, in Madrid). Fireworks, party poppers, car horns and anything else suitable rings out to bring in the New Year.
Early next morning, the party-goers enjoy a breakfast of chocolate con churros (hot chocolate and filed pastry).
Tradition states that wearing red underwear brings good luck for the year as long as it’s been bought for you by someone else.