Christmas is a special time for most people and nations. Spain is no exception but has its own set of traditions, key dates and festivities. You can learn more about Christmas Time on Spain, most of which is also practised in the Hondon Valley areas. Thanks to Sarah Mcinerney for the following article.
No nation in the world knows how to enjoy itself quite like Spain, so at Christmas, the celebrations are naturally long and spectacular.
The Christmas season in Spain is of course religiously centered, more so than in England where pagan traditions of gift-giving and tree-decorating have overshadowed the true meaning of Christmas and the celebration of the birth of the son of God.
The Spanish see Christmas Eve night as a time for family, feasting and spending time together in the home. Unlike other countries, you won’t find shops, bars and restaurants open on the night of Christmas Eve; however on Christmas Day it’s another matter, where everything is open and running, including buses and trains, all laid on so that families can visit each other without having to take the car!
During Advent, that is the four weeks leading up to Christmas, individual homes, villages and towns are decorated with Christmas trees (árboles de Navidad), wreaths (coronas de Navidad), tinsel (espumillón), holly (acebo), mistletoe (muérdago) and poinsettias (flores de Navidad) as well as innovative lighting wrapped around the branches of trees. But the most popular adornment, in-keeping with the religious tone of the season is the ‘belén’ – the nativity scene. Some towns construct very ornate scenes, and many don’t just stop at ‘Jesus in the manger’, with some depicting longer portions of the Christmas story, and in some places they don’t just use figurines – they use real actors! Some of these are a very popular tourist attraction. If you are lucky enough to see one, don’t be surprised if the traditional manger-side animals are joined by Spain’s national symbol – the bull!
Also during December many Spanish people take part in El Gordo, the most famous lottery draw in the world with massive cash prizes (El Gordo literally means ‘the fat one’). The Christmas Draw is on 22 December and the prizes total 2023 million Euros! That’s over £1.3billion! Find out more on www.elgordo.com.
The Spanish enjoy a long Christmas period, with the first major celebration taking place on 21 December, the winter solstice and shortest day of the year. Hogueras – meaning ‘bonfires’ – is a tradition older than Christmas itself and marks the beginning of winter. As well as bonfires being lit all over Spain, in some towns (particularly Jaén and Granada in Andalucia), you will see people jumping over fires, which is an act believed to protect against illness.
Christmas Eve – Nochebuena (meaning ‘good night’) – on 24 December sees families come together for a special meal late at night. This will usually consist of a first course of seafood, followed by many different types of meat, not just turkey although this is popular, especially stuffed with truffles (Pavo Trufado de Navidad). After the meal, the family will congregate around the Christmas tree and sing carols (villancicos) including the popular Catalan ‘Fum, Fum, Fum.’ At midnight, bells ring out throughout Spain to call the families to ‘La Misa del Gallo’ – literally, ‘the Rooster’s Mass’. Christmas Eve has no place for sleeping! There is an old Spanish saying:
“Esta noche es Nochebuena, y no es noche de dormir.
Tonight is the good night, not a night for sleeping”
Christmas Day (El Día de Navidad), unlike other countries, is not a day for exchanging gifts. Father Christmas (or Papa Noel) is known in Spain, but is not very popular, so Spanish children cannot be bribed with the ‘if you’re not good Santa won’t bring you any presents this year’ line. There is a time for gift giving, but it isn’t Christmas Day.
Boxing Day (Día del Boxeo) is better known as the Feast of Saint Stephen (San Esteban) and is a public holiday in Spain.
28 December is ‘El día de los Santos Inocentes‘, the Day of the Innocents. This is the Spanish version of April Fools Day and sees people involving themselves in practical jokes and crying ‘Inocente, inocente!’ (‘Innocent, innocent!’) when they are caught. Like in the UK, the newspapers are in on the tomfoolery as well.
31 December is of course New Years Eve – known as Nochevieja or ‘old night’ in Spain. The equivalent of the UK’s Trafalgar Square convergence is Madrid’s Puerta del Sol where tens of thousands of people assemble to celebrate seeing the New Year in. But wherever people are in Spain, they will be seeing in the New Year in the traditional way – with the ‘eating of the grapes’ (tomar las uvas). Everyone gathered around the clock has twelve grapes, and as each chime of midnight rings out, so they have to eat one grape. A good insider tip is to take the skins off the grapes first to help you eat them so quickly!
This tradition dates back to fairly recently – the beginning of the 20th century – and supposedly came about after a bizarrely large crop of grapes was harvested in Spain one unusually warm winter. Not knowing what to do with the unwanted crop, the grape growers came up with the idea of every person in Spain eating twelve grapes at midnight to see in the New Year. El día de año nuevo, the first of January, is New Years Day and is a public holiday in Spain.
The next major event, and the most important of the Spanish Christmas season, is el día de Los Reyes Magos – the day of the Three Kings. This takes place over the 5 and 6 of January and is the time most looked forward to by children in Spain, as it’s the day they get their presents!
Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior were the three kings who followed the Star of David until they reached the lowly manger in Bethlehem twelve days after Jesus was born. As everyone knows, they brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. So this is why in Spain, the gift giving is celebrated on this day. As children in other countries become excited at the thought of Father Christmas trundling down the chimney with a sack full of toys, so Spanish children look forward to the arrival of the Three Kings during the night, who arrive on their donkeys and leave gifts for all the niños.
In true Spanish fiesta style, this event is celebrated in carnival fashion with ‘La Cabalgata’, the cavalcade on the 5th of January. The ‘three kings’ make a spectacular entrance into the town or village on brightly adorned floats, throwing sweets to rows and rows of bright-eyed children. After the parade the children return home and before bedtime, they fill their shoes with carrots and straw and put them by the window. This ritual is similar to the ‘glass of milk and cookies by the fireplace for Santa’, but the Spanish children are leaving food for the kings’ donkeys.
The next morning, January 6, sees the excited children up early to open the presents left by ‘the Three Kings’, and is the day when the entire family get together for a meal and to exchange gifts. Their meal will include a ‘Rosca de Reyes’, which is a large fruitcake with coins and other surprises hidden inside.
So if you are planning on spending Christmas in Spain, try and arrange it so you can be there for the celebration of the Three Kings on 5 and 6 January as this really is one of the best things to see.
And don’t forget to bring home some of those wonderful Spanish delights of the Christmas season – like Turrón – known to us as nougat – this comes in a variety of flavours, including almond, peanut and hazelnut. Mantecados and Polvorones are also popular traditional Christmas sweets made with almonds. Divine!