Glittering fairy lights, oversized Christmas trees and the smoky scent of chestnuts and honey almonds roasting on an open fire. Dulce Navidad is playing in the shopping centers and long lines loop through El Corte Inglés. It’s the end of November and beginning to look a lot like Christmas all over Spain.
Thanksgiving may not be a ‘thing’ here, but as of recent years Black Friday certainly is, and just like in the states, those deals mark the start of the Christmas season.
‘Tis the Season!
Celebrating Christmas in Spain
A lot goes down in Spain between the lights going up in late November and the 3 Wise Men delivering the goodies to the littles in January. Instead of feeling homesick this Christmas season, get in the spirit by mixing some Spanish Christmas traditions into your holiday repertoire!
Long Weekend in December || Puente de diciembre
The 6th and 8th of December are holidays (Constitution Day and Day of the Immaculate Conception, respectively), and it’s not uncommon for some generous schools and businesses to offer the 7th off as well, allowing employees to enjoy a five-day weekend.
For those that aren’t planning to go crazy with their Christmas shopping, it’s a perfect opportunity for a long weekend escape! Some of the most popular options are:
- Defrosting in the warmer climates of Morocco or the Canary Islands (20 °c year-round!)
- “Czeching” out the tinseled Christmas markets in places like Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic, or
- Hitting the slopes in Andorra, the Alps or Spain’s own Sierra Nevadas
Christmas Markets ||Mercadillos navideños
If you can’t make it to the colder, eastern countries (more well-known for their mulled wine-infused markets), Spain has plenty to offer along those lines. Most large towns and all the major cities host Christmas markets where locals and tourists alike can find handmade trinkets and artisanal food and drink, especially the cherished Christmas sweets.
I’m partial to Madrid’s mercadillo in Plaza Mayor, but there are many worth checking out all over Spain. Find out where your local markets take place and stop by for a cola cao and quirky surprises, all to the soundtrack of traditional villancicos (Christmas carols).
Nativity Scenes || Belenes
From ornate, handcrafted nativity scenes, to giant life-size statues and even ‘living’ scenes with real actors, Spain loves a good belén – both going to see them, as well as collecting miniatures to make their own!
If you’re around Madrid, take a day to check out the life-size nativity figures in El Escorial and the live action belén in Colmenar de Viejo, which boasts real animals and over 200 actors.
Down here in the Canary Islands, we’ve got our own life-size belén in La Orotava (Tenerife), or you can check out the worlds’ largest sand-sculpted nativity scene in Las Palmas’ Playa de Las Canteras (Gran Canaria).
On a much stranger nativity note, Cataluña, Murcia and some parts of Valencia add an extra twist and turd turn with their signature Caganer, literally a figure squatting and taking a poo in the nativity scene.
You read that right.
Traditionally the figure was dressed in a peasant’s red cap on his head and nada on his bottom, but today the caganers are often modeled after athletes or celebrities. The mango Mussolini himself was a big hit for sales as a caganer in 2017 (this time letting
shit loose from his back-end instead of his mouth like he usually does 🙄).
“The Fat One” Christmas Lottery ||
El Gordo Lotería de Navidad
Spanish people love playing the lottery, and the Christmas lotto is the big kahuna. It’s the biggest and longest running lottery in the world, uninterrupted for over 200 years, including during the Spanish Civil War. This may explain why it isn’t just a lottery, but a Christmas tradition as important as just about everything else on this list, complete with its own superstitions and annual TV advert that tries to one-up itself every year.
Almost 2/3 of Spaniards buy tickets for El Gordo, which sell at €200 each. Because of the high price tag, it’s very common for groups of coworkers, family or friends to split the tickets by throwing in 20 bucks each for a tenth of a ticket (decimos).
Many towns even have their own auspicious lotto spot where loyal patrons return to buy their tickets and take their chances year after year, like Madrid’s lucky Doña Manolita just off of Puerto de Sol. But fair warning, if you haven’t already snagged yours, you’ll need plenty of time and preferably some company to keep you going in that long December line!
Many people consider that the Christmas season doesn’t really begin until 22nd December, when every television in the nation is tuned in to hear the winners, which are sung out by students at Colegio de Madrid, San Ildefonso.
Christmas Sweets || Dulces de Navidad
You’ll notice in markets, supermarkets and literally any social function you attend this December that sweets play a big role throughout the Christmas season. These sweet treats seem to be ever present this time of year – day and night, and especially after the big family meals when served with cava. Those with nut allergies beware though, as they nearly all include almonds! Here are the most popular ones to look out for and make sure to taste this season!
- Turrón: Arguably the most famous of the Christmas sweets, these nutty nougat bars date all the way back to Spain’s Moorish history
- Mantecado: You can find these almondy shortbread-style sweets wherever you go, but vegetarians beware! They often include animal lard.
- Polvorones: Flaky almond cookies
- Marzipan (Mazapán): almond paste mixed with sugar or honey
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
Nochebuena y Navidad
Although Christmas Day isn’t the main event here in Spain, Christmas Eve is an important family event, shared with cousins, grandparents, in-laws and whoever else you can stuff around the table. Most of the day is spent cooking and preparing the evening meal among nibbles of turrón and tipples of the local liquor.
Christmas Eve dinner, like all Spanish meals, is served family style with loads of different elements to savor. It usually involves a soup starter, lots of shellfish (primarily prawns), a fish platter, a meat dish (often lamb), potatoes and typical Spanish treats like cheese and delicately sliced Iberian ham from the infamous patas de jamón (ham legs).
After dinner (and often after a cava-infused round of villancicos), the abuelos might head off to Misa del Gallo (midnight mass), while the younger folks meet friends for drinks and dancing.
Though it’s a relatively new tradition, many children open a few gifts from Papá Noel (Santa Claus) on Christmas Eve, allowing them something to tide them over as they wait for the real gift-giving celebrations on Día de los Reyes, still 12 days away.
The Grapes of New Year’s Eve & New Year’s Day
Las uvas de Nochebuena y Nuevo Año
New Year’s Eve celebrations begin with another big family dinner and end up, like in most places, with champagne and dancing until the wee hours. The main square in most cities and towns fill up as people huddle in tightly and excitedly countdown to midnight, dressed to the nines despite the cold, and donning red undies if they’re hoping to be lucky in love during the upcoming year.
What sets midnight apart in Spain is that instead of puckering up for a midnight smooch, the goal is to stuff 12 grapes into your mouth as the clock strikes twelve, ensuring you luck for the year to come. If this sounds like a) an impossible task and b) a choking hazard, you’re right! I suppose that’s what makes you lucky if you succeed 🍇😉.
A proper New Year’s Eve celebration doesn’t end until the sun comes up the next day and you’ve finished off the night with a dose of chocolate con churros (preferably at Chocolatería San Ginés if you’re in Madrid and don’t mind the wait).
New Year’s Day is all about relaxing and sleeping off the resaca (hangovers are so last year 🙄). Many families have lentils for a lucky lunch, but in general it’s a quiet, cozy day for PJ’s, pelís and paracetamol.
Día de los Reyes: Parades, Presents and Polemics
3 Wise Men’s Day || 3 King’s Day || Epiphany
If you’re a kid growing up in Spain, this is what you’ve been waiting for since you wrote your letter to your favorite of los Reyes Magos (the Three Wise Men) with your holiday requests.
On the afternoon of 5th January, the Three Kings will visit most cities and major towns in a jubilant parade (cabalgata), throwing sweets and treats to enthused children carrying upside-down umbrellas to catch the freefalling candy.
When the sugar high wears down and the little nuggets are tucked in with their persianas shut tight, los Reyes Magos travel upon their camels to deliver gifts to be opened on the morning of 6th January. But instead of Frankincense and Myrrh, these modern King’s will likely be delivering footballs and PS4s to the nice ones and (like in the US) coal to the naughty ones.
Roscón de Reyes
After the littles have opened up their Christmas packages, but before heading to the local park or plaza to try them out, it’s time to break out the Roscón de Reyes. This colorful pile of sugar cake is smothered in glazed fruits and often comes with a thick layer of cream in the center. Similar to Louisiana’s King Cake, the Roscón is baked with a bean and a figurine inside. The lucky one to find the figurine is crowned king or queen for the day, while the unlucky one to bite into the bean is meant to buy the cake for next years’ celebrations.
3 Kings’ Controversy
Over recent years, a couple of controversies have arisen in relation to the Reyes Magos, both of them due to globalization.
- As more and more families begin to unwrap a couple of Papá Noel presents on Christmas Eve, some traditional Spaniards are unhappy that the onslaught of Santa Claus culture being brought in from outside may mean that the tradition of the Reyes Magos on the 6th may die out in favor of the more widely recognized Santa celebrations on the 25th.
- Despite the new year marking 2018, the longtime tradition in Spain has been to represent Balthazar as a black man… by hiring a white guy and using “black face” makeup.
Again, you read that right.
Several petitions have made the rounds over the last decade demanding black actors be hired for the part to recognize and celebrate modern diversity in Spain, but unfortunately there remains a (maddening) resistance from many who see it as a “traditional.”
On a positive not, in 2017 Madrid’s left-leaning mayor Manuela Carmena took heed to a petition and declared that from 2017 on, black face would no longer be used in Madrid’s Three King’s Parade. Hopefully the rest of the nation isn’t far behind!
And to Round It All Off… Rebajas!
After Christmas Sales
If you still have anything left in the old bank account after the markets, the weekend getaways and the endless Christmas cocktails with coworkers and friends, the after-Christmas sales in Spain are bangin. Seriously, if you’re in need of anything pricey, do your best to put it off until 7th January, when shops start slashing prices on last season’s items.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry!
There are a million and one ways to enjoy the season here in Spain, so whether you’re here on holidays or living here in España, get amongst it! The Spanish are nothing if not social, and likely every group you’re involved with – colleagues, classmates, roomies, sports teams, sometimes even neighbours or your usual bar – will be having some kind of get together. So eat, drink and be merry!
Let me know in the comments which are your favourite holiday traditions here in Spain, and if I’ve left anything out! Prospero Año y Felicidad! 🎄🥂
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