The Christmas holiday season in Spain is a truly magical affair. Although it doesn’t get going until seemingly the last minute, the Spanish throw themselves whole heartedly into the spirit of things and the festivities finally culminate on the 6th January.
The true mark of the beginning of Christmas in Spain is the Spanish national lottery draw held on December 22nd. ‘El Gordo’ or the fat one, is so called because it is the largest national lottery in the world with the total prize fund running into billions and it also has the best odds of winning. The draw takes place throughout the whole morning and the whole nation tunes in to watch the very elaborate drawing of the numbers. The tickets can cost up to 200 euros so many people club together to buy a share, although there are those who put aside a saving fund, sometimes up to 1000 euros to buy a few tickets for the family. The lottery draw is the moment when Christmas comes to Spain, this symbolic tradition has been going for centuries and Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without it.
Once the lottery draw has been made, the festivities really begin, students and children break up for the holidays and lights, decorations and trees suddenly appear overnight. The traditional Christmas decoration for a true Spanish Christmas is the ‘belén’ or nativity scene. Just like other countries across the world, where Christmas trees take centre stage in town and village squares, each town and village has its own belen. Some of these scenes are breathtakingly beautiful and elaborate and can be visited in town halls and churches across the land. Even personal ones can take over whole rooms in the house and just with the Christmas tree it is a magical family time spent putting it together and adding all the little touches. As well as the traditional religious characters and popular local scenes, one special character is paramount to the Spanish belen. He is known as ‘el Cagón’ and to be polite, he is a figure in a squat position doing a poo! His presence symbolises the fertilisation of the land for the coming year but of course provides much amusement for the children. Although an important and historical figure in the belén, he has been banned from public nativity scenes in many towns by local governments so as not to cause offence…
Just like other Christmas celebrations, here in Spain it is a time to gather the family together and celebrate with a meal. The main Christmas meal in Spain is held on Christmas Eve or ‘Noche Buena’
The meal on the eve of the 24th is the most important meal in the Spanish calendar and is always held in the evening, many people won’t even start until after midnight as the old saying goes, “ Esta noche es Noche Buena, y no es de dormir” this night is the Good Night, and is not meant for sleeping”
Generally, the celebrations usually begin early evening when friends and family meet in bars for a drink before returning home for the main event. Like most Christmas meals, the Spanish one involves a lot of preparation, many courses, lots to drink and lasts all night.
You can expect to find a large array of moth watering seasonal delights at the table during the meal. Popular foods for starters or appetisers are shellfish and cold cuts of meat which are usually followed by soup and then another fish dish. A traditional one is ‘besugo’ which is baked bream but you may also find lobster, crab, salmon, hake, sea bass or trout. Then for the main course the traditional roast is lamb or sucking pig although duck, or turkey served with truffles are becoming more popular. Dessert is traditionally a selection of sweets and cakes such as marzipan, ‘polvorones’ a sweet kind of bread or Spanish turrón which is nougat made with sweet toasted almonds and has been made in Spain for centuries. The only drink to accompany your meal is cava, the Spanish equivalent of champagne which many say is far better than its French counterpart.
Another must do for a true Spanish Christmas is midnight mass which people go to either before or after the meal, depending on the time they eat. Christmas midnight mass in Spain is known as ‘La Misa del Gallo’ or ‘Rooster Mass’ because the rooster was the first to announce the birth of Christ. Once the meal and mass is over, people return home to exchange gifts. Children will often only receive a small gift as ‘Papa Noel’ is less popular than the Three Kings who arrive on 5th January with presents for all the children. The evening, or morning, usually ends in a bar or disco where whole families gather to party and celebrate once the family festivities are over.
Christmas day is a quiet affair and the quietest in the Spanish calendar. People meet up for a walk or a drink and while many continue the celebrations with a meal in a restaurant, most people are still recovering from the evening before. In Catalonia, there is a wonderful Christmas day tradition which goes by the name of “El Tio.” Basically a decorated log or tree trunk is ‘fed’ with sweets and other goodies during the few days before Christmas and then on the day, Children sing the traditional catalan Christmas song and beat el tio with a stick when he produces sweets and other delights for all the family.
Shortly after Christmas day on December 28th there is another curious celebration unique to Spain called ‘The Day of the Innocents.’ Although the origins of this fiesta lie in murders of women and children committed by Herod in Judea, modern day celebrations are similar to those of April fools Day on a much larger scale. Newspapers print ridiculous stories and even prominent political figures get involved. Never believe anything you see or hear on this day and watch your step carefully!
New Year’s Eve or ‘Noche Vieja’ in Spain is celebrated much like everywhere else with a few unique exceptions. It is apparently tradition to wear red underwear which must be bought for you by someone else (although I’ve never been brave enough to check this one out for myself.) Another great and long standing tradition is ‘las doce uvas’ or the twelve grapes. At the stroke of midnight, one grape must be eaten with each chime of the bell or clock, anyone who manages all twelve are said to have good luck throughout the coming year. It is a tradition taken very seriously by many Spanish people and while some of us are still struggling at ten past twelve, there are lots of people well practiced in the art. Preparation is everything though, I remember helping to peel and deseed enough grapes for 10 people last year……. You can buy ready prepared grapes in tins but it is not the same somehow.
Once the grapes have been eaten and multiple kisses bestowed, the party really begins. Again, whole families from the young to the old can be seen in bars and discos celebrating the beginning of the New Year until the early hours.
For Spanish children, the best days of the festive season have to be the 5th and 6th of January. While the rest of us are packing away the trees and tired decorations, Spanish children everywhere are preparing for the arrival of the Three Kings. In Spain it is not Santa who brings the children their presents, but the Three Kings or ‘Los Reyes Magos’ On the 5th January, the eve of Epiphany children go to local parades which herald the arrival of the Three Kings. Each village parade consists of decorative floats with a variety of themes and sweets and streamers being thrown into the crowds. At the end of the parade, children get the opportunity to ask the Three Kings for their chosen gift and then leave their shoes out overnight in which their gift will be placed. In many villages though, the parade of the Three Kings culminates in a gathering at the local church or school hall where each child’s name is called out and they receive a small gift. The day of the 6th January is a national holiday, much like Christmas day and children wake up to presents left by the Three Kings. The typical dessert of the day is called “Rosca de los Reyes” and is a home baked ring style bread decorated with coloured jellies to symbolise the jewels worn by the three Kings. Inside is hidden a small surprise similar to what we find in Christmas crackers. Anyone lucky enough to find the hidden surprise may be crowned King or Queen for the day!
Christmas celebrations in Spain are fantastic and what I like is the way things are not commercialised as they are in the UK for example. Walking down the road at the beginning of December, you would hardly notice that Christmas is round the corner, there are very few Christmas adverts on TV and it seems ages before lights and decorations go up. However once the fever takes over, you are spoiled by the generosity of Christmas spirit bestowed on you by the locals, you get free gifts in the shops and free tipples in the town hall, lights and decorations appear as if by magic, there is music to be heard and people seem to suddenly take to the streets and squares just to wish you well and enjoy the atmosphere which goes on right until January.
The 6th January marks the end of the Christmas celebrations in Spain and then like everywhere else, it’s back to the same old. But don’t worry the next fiesta is just around the corner…
By Gayle Hartley Orce Serrano Hams