Having spent several Christmases and New Years in Spain, the first thing I noticed is that the celebrations are much more traditional and religious compared to the more commercialised Christmases in England and the US. Spanish people are more family oriented so there is a greater emphasis on spending time with the family and less on present giving and materialism. The celebrations last longer too, (almost a month!) as they also celebrate “Los Reyes” (The King’s Day) on 6th January. Here is what to expect from a typical Spanish Christmas:
In the main Spanish cities the streets are filled with lights and street decorations from the beginning of December. The main squares are filled with a large Christmas tree, nativity scenes and sometimes ice-rinks. In homes some people put up a Christmas tree, ‘un árbol de navidad’ but it is more traditional to set up a belén (a nativity scene). You will find these everywhere; in shops, churches, museums, in the streets and in schools. Spanish people don’t really go in for sending Christmas cards, tarjetas de navidad as we do here in the UK but they do sing Christmas carols, villancicos.
This is the most important part of the Christmas celebrations when people normally go out to a bar in the early evening for una copa de champán (champagne) and then return home for a big family meal. Bars and restaurants normally close early. A typical Christmas meal starts with mariscos (seafood) including langostinos (king prawns), bacalao (cod), followed by cordero asado (roast lamb). The meal is polished off with turrón, a sweet nougat made of toasted almonds and honey and other typical festive sweets such as, polvorones made of flour, sugar and almonds and figuras de mazapán (marzipan figures). Many people then attend “El Miso del Gallo” (Midnight Mass).
Some people may give gifts on the 25th December however the main present giving day is on 6th January, “Los Reyes” (The King’s Day). The shops are closed and it is a quiet day when families go for walks or have another family meal at home. However, it is becoming more popular for families to dine out in restaurants these days.
La Nochevieja is a family celebration with a big family meal at home and when the clock strikes midnight it is traditional to eat 12 grapes. Every time the clock strikes, you put one grape in your mouth. By the time the clock strikes 12, you have about 12 grapes in your mouth – bear in mind, Spain doesn’t tend to have seedless grapes! It is televised in the main square, La Puerta del Sol in Madrid. The idea is that if you manage to eat all 12 grapes you will have good luck for the following year. After you have seen in the New Year with your family, young people then go out partying until early morning. A growing trend is for hotels, bars and restaurants to hold special parties through the night.
This is my favourite celebration in Spain and nearly as important as Christmas Day. It is the main present-giving day. The night before, people line the streets to watch la cabalgata, an impressive procession of the three magic kings parading through the streets followed by acrobats, figures on stilts, fire eaters, dancers and such like. (Nothing like the feeble Santa float you sometimes see in the UK). They throw out sweets to the crowd and I have always found it amusing to watch even the adults frantically scrabbling around on the ground to find sweets! The next morning children wake up to find the presents left by the three kings!
It is traditional to eat a “Roscón”, a doughnut shaped sweet bread covered in glacier cherries and sugar. Watch out though if you eat one, as they always put a plastic toy in it, so that the person who finds it gets good luck for the next year.