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 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 (one of the only places I´ve been able to track down mistletoe!), 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 has been a big hit for sales as a caganer since 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 (last year´s guiri advert even struck up some controversy amongst Spain´s expat community).
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 in La Latina.
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 gift or two from Papá Noel (Santa Claus) on Christmas Eve, allowing them something to tide them over as they (im)patiently await the real loot 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 to 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 or 3 Kings) 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.
3 Kings´ Cake||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 diabetes 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:
- With so much American culture coming through television, films and social media, more and more families are unwrapping a couple of Papá Noel presents on Christmas Eve. Some traditional Spaniards are none too pleased that the onslaught of Santa Claus culture on the 25th brought in from outside may reduce the tradition of the Reyes Magos on the 6th.
- The longtime tradition in Spain has been to represent the 3 wise men as two white men and one black man, Balthazar. Despite the new year marking 2019, however, Balthasar has often been portrayed by a white guy in…you guessed it… “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 “tradition.”
On a positive note, two years ago 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 it´s a sign that positive change is on the horizon and the rest of the nation won´t be 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 holiday 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 Spain holiday traditions, and if I’ve left anything out! And if you´re thinking of celebrating Christmas in the Canary Islands, don´t miss this post!
Prospero Año y Felicidad! 🎄🥂
59 Comments Add yours
Feliz Navidad from Indonesia! I’ve never been to Spain, but reading your post here, it seems like there would be a lot of fun to spend Christmas in Spain.
I especially laughed out loud on the part you mentioned about the signature Caganer. I couldn’t really imagine Mussolini squatting and taking a poo. But well… I want to find out to see more figures for that. 😛
I love seeing how people from around the world spend the holidays. 200 for an El Gordo ticket? 🙂 Some people have more money than sense. hahaha
I have yet to spend Christmas in a foreign country and your description of the Spanish Christmas makes me want to take a plane right now! Would love to see that signature Caganer!! They know how to have fun in Spain!
I love hearing about traditions in various cultures. They fascinate me! I have never heard of the caganer (!) or the 12 grapes at New Years. I will be in Murcia in May and look forward to talking with locals about this curious tradition. Thanks for the conversation starter. 😉
What a great trip! It’s nice to participate in the holidays in another country. You did a great job blogging about this trip.
We spent Christmas in Cambodia last year and it wasn’t the same as being at home but it was interesting to see how other people celebrate Christmas. Though I would love to celebrate it in another Christian country in the future such as Spain to see more of the older traditions, its really fascinating to see what other people do.
Great article! Christmas in Spain looks fun, never considered Spain as a winter destination but it certainly has its sweet spots, thanks for sharing!
Interesting and definitely a fun place to celebrate the season. Thanks for sharing👍
I visited Madrid in December many years ago and remember the Christmas markets fondly! I think I’d enjoy it even more now that my Spanish has improved considerably, haha. I love that they have a different gift-giving tradition and hope they manage to preserve it – it would be such a pity if it died out only to be replaced by the ubiquitous Santa Claus!
Wow! That’s so many different traditions I’ve never heard of. Thanks for the peek into Spanish holidays!
Spending the holidays somewhere else other than home can be both lonely and fun/interesting. You can learn so much about a culture and the way they celebrate Christmas traditions – but also you miss your old traditions back home.
Hey, really cool sounding trip, it’s also pretty cool experiencing Crimbo in different cultures!
I loved to read about Christmas in other Countries, the traditions and everything around the Holidays! It looks warm and festive, it was not cold at all? It looks beautiful.
In the Canary Islands we don’t typically get much cold weather until late January and Feb, but temperatures at sea level rarely drop below 15! Mainland Spain can be much chillier, but we’re a bit spoilt here 🙂
I love reading about how people celebrate Christmas in different countries! One day I would to celebrate the day somewhere warm and sunny! Perhaps Spain soon! 🙂
OMG! I am reading a Christmas post in July whilst there is a heatwave here in London! 😀 But seriously, I would love celebrate Christmas in a warm country and Spain is only down the road from me, so one day as this does look very appealing 🙂
Spain colonized the Philippines for 300 years so I am quite familiar with all the Spanish Christmas traditions, including the 12 round fruits (nor just grapes). But I didn’t know about caganer!
I loved reading this! So interesting to learn about how another culture celebrates the christmas season! I think it’s really interesting that that have lentils for luck on New Year’s day. I live in Virginia, and we have a similar tradition here, but with black-eyed peas! And how did they ever start the tradition of adding a man taking a dump to a nativity scene?!?
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What an entertaining read! I was in Seville last year during the early December holidays and it was just packed. Quite the interesting nativity scene in Valencia! I think I’ll stick with kissing on New Year’s Eve over stuffing grapes in my mouth, but a big yes to the churros and chocolate!
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Haha, I definitely miss getting that New Year’s kiss, but it’s fun starting the New Year with some laughs as you all try to stuff your faces! I love Sevilla but I’ve yet to visit around Christmastime. It must have been stunning!
I have this dream of spending Christmas holidays in a small European city. Christmas is Spain seems so colorful and full of lights. The Christmas sweets are yummy. The celebrations are so lively.
This post brings back fond memories of my stay in Spain when I studied abroad. I left 2 days before Christmas so I got to get the feel of the Christmas spirit while I was there. I would love to have some turrón right now! haha
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You got the best of both world! The excitement leading up to Christmas in your host country and the joy of celebrating back home with your family 🙂 What city were you studying abroad in?
I did spent Xmas and New years in Spain in 2016..It was really beautiful and lively. Loved your post. It brought us back all the beautiful memories 🙂
Glad to bring back some good memories! What cities did you spend Christmas & Spain in?
Hi Erica! I went to Barcelona, Bilbao, San Sebastián and Madrid…
This is my first time on your blog and loved your writing and photographs. I have yet to visit Spain but after reading your post, I would love to be during xmas celebration. Such epic traditions and celebrations are right way to know about a destination. I have to see that signature Caganer.
I have friends and family in Spain and I’ve always loved seeing their celebrations and have always wanted to go for Christmas one year. We had a Christmas in Cambodia the other year and it was so strange, not only as it was hot but I think mostly because they don’t really celebrate.
You had us at Caganer. Mango Mussolini? HAHA! I will have to use that one!!
Christmas markets seem like a nice way to get into the season – unlike Black Friday. I am only allergic to cashews, so the sweets would be just the thing for me. Christmas in Spain sounds quite nice. And things get quite political over X-mas traditions…. Intriguing, indeed.
Ugh Black Friday is awful! They’re starting to bring it over here, but in typical Spanish fashion they do it in their own way so it starts a couple weeks earlier and never gets crazy like in the states.
I’d love to travel during Christmas and experience different traditions. I’m so surprised to hear about the lotto. I had no idea! I also love that rather than kissing, people try to get 12 grapes in their mouths. So funny! I have to say, I’d gladly give up three feet of snow for a few Christmas pics on the beach 🙂
I really enjoyed reading this post, and discovering so much about how Christmas is celebrated in Spain, and how the traditions are changing with exposure to more global Christmas practices. And ouch, on that black face tradition, I can see why many would be fighting against that in the modern world!
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As much as I love Spain, they’re definitely about 7,000 years behind on political correctness. You’d be surprised how many otherwise reasonably seemin people don’t find anything wrong with the practice 🙄
Oh, this all sounds like great fun! I love how ‘same but different’ the Christmas markets appear to be across different European countries and after reading this, Spain has risen on my Christmas Bucket List. The caganer sounds delightfully irreverant and I had no idea the lottery was such a big holiday tradition. Do you know if foreigners are allowed to participate?
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It’s really such a blast at Christmastime… all the joys of a European Christmas with much more moderate temperatures 😊The caganrer is a hoot and anyone can play (and win!) the lotto 😄
A Christmas lottery!? How have I not heard of this before? It sounds like a magical time of year to be there. We hiked the Camino and then road tripped a bit of the country for a few weeks and had a wonderful time. The people, the food, the festivals.
Christmas traditions (and New Year’s) in countries around the world are so wonderful to experience … and sometimes from our perspectives, a little whacky. Stuffing12 grapes into your mouth? Really. How about sipping 12 shot glasses of wine, would that count? 😉 I’ve experienced Christmas in the U.S., Canada, England and Kenya. Seems like I need to add Spain to the list too.
Feliz Navidad! What a great collection of traditions and activities. I think I’m very much up for a lot of chestnuts, marzipan and prawns making up my Christmas feast. I’m loving the sand and life-sized nativities, although I’ll be cautious of any slow moving participants in any I happen to spot. I had no idea El Gordo was so expensive, but I love the superstitions attached to where you buy your ticket.
It’s so fun getting to read about how other cultures celebrate Christmas! I’d love to know how on earth that squatting guy ever first got included in the Nativity scene hahaha. It’s interesting that they eat lentils for good luck – I’m from the southern US, and we eat black-eyed peas on New Years for good luck! There just must be something lucky about beans!
I didn’t realize Spain does Christmas markets too! I hope it’s still there when I visit Madrid towards the beginning of January! So festive and fun 🙂
If you’re there before the sixth of January, you’ll be in luck! We do gift giving here on 3 Kings Day, so at least a few of the markets will still be open 😄
Oh my gosh I can’t believe about the Caganer!! I had never heard that before…and feel l like I still haven’t read that bit right ha ha! Awesome to hear about different Christmas festivities around the world and how it’s celebrated. We have a summery Christmas here in NZ too so we all enjoy summer holidays and head to the beach. I’d love to go to those Christmas markets. I had no idea about 3 Wise Men’s day either – amazing to learn about these different traditions!
Spending the holiday season in Spain sounds like a lot of fun. I love Christmas markets. The scene with the Caganer talking a poo actually made me laugh. 3 Kings Day sounds like fun, I have heard of 3 Kings Day but did not know what it was.
Thanks for reading! Where will you be spending Christmas this year?
Thank for asking I will be spending Christmas in Arkansas with family.
Wow, even after visiting Spain so many years in a row, I didn’t know a lot of these. Of course, I always visited in the summer. I’ve wanted to go in December but never have managed it. I am surprised at all the lotteries and the stuffing of your mouth with 12 grapes on NYE…that sounds easy until you really think about it. And choking hazard, yes! I also didn’t know January 5th was the day. I knew that a lot of countries celebrated much later, but I didn’t know Spain was one of them!
Looks like Spain is a great place to spend the holidays! The markets look so beautiful this time of year and I had no idea about the lotteries. How interesting that it’s the longest-running lottery in the world. I couldn’t’ stop laughing when I read about the poo squatting figure in the nativity scene.
What a great place to spend Christmas. I love the different traditions and you’ve certainly done a great job explaining them. You’ve made me laugh reading this. The Caganer sounds hilarious. And I can’t believe 2/3’s of the Spanish buy lottery tickets! I’ve only been to Spain once, but I definitely want to go back after reading your post.
HAHA I think my favorite tradition is stuffing 12 grapes in your mouth. I had no idea King cake was also a spanish tradition and just loved hearing about all those great desserts.
Wow I had never considered Spain as a popular Christmas location, its so amazing to see how others countries spend there festive season. Being Australian we are totally different to almost all the rest of the world, we have hot weather, bbq, seafood cocktails and beer!
We travelled to the USA for a white Christmas with our 3 kids and we got our snowy experience in Boston and it was just perfect.
Christmas in Spain seems to be full of the old world charm and traditions, though I guess commercialization does creep in. I love the tradition of a family holiday before Christmas. The night markets seem really enchanting. The joy and excitement of kids on 3 Wise Men Day/3 Kings day is almost palpable.
I love to visit places with interesting Christmas markets. Never thought that Spain too have great Christmas markets but reading your post tempts me to go for it. I would love to visit Madrid, and check out the life-size nativity figures in El Escorial!
What a great list! I spent the holidays in Rome one year and had a great time, and it looks like Spain is equally if not more festive. That’s really interesting that Christmas markets can be found here. Also, I have had Roscón de Reyes in Mexico! I was surprised how similar the concept was to king’s cake in New Orleans, so it makes sense that both of them eventually trace their roots back to Europe.