At the end of the month of November you can feel in the air that the Christmas Season is approaching. It is then when streets are decorated with typical ornaments, motifs and Christmas lights. In some cities, a beautiful Christmas Tree is put in the main square, next to the town hall or in some mall. Also, recently, in bigger cities, an ice-ring is set up in a square or in a large area of the city during the season. Shops put decorations, too, and the shop windows get full of gifts and toys as well.
Christmas is celebrated in many countries all around the world and Spain shares many traditions with all these places. Families meet to share the joy and happiness of these special times and to celebrate the birth of Jesus. However, there are traditions and customs which only happen to be here and reflect the personality of the country during the season.
Some special elements of Christmas in Spain are:
- The Nativity Scene: it consists of a mini representation of the birth of Jesus Child. It is a strong tradition to put the Scene in all homes. Some Nativities are important and large (they are set up at institutions, worship places...). They are very carefully decorated, plenty of details and very artistic! You even can find the river with real water and a waterwheel, shepherds taking care of the flock and herd, representations of manual jobs (potter, washerwomen, blacksmith...) and the Three Kings following the Star to Bethlehem... In some cities and villages, on the night of the 24th December, a live exhibit of the Nativity takes place (see video below), with animals, real people and of course, a baby! There are also contests to award the best Nativity Scene in many cities and villages.
- The Christmas Tree: As in many other countries, the Tree has become a typical element of Christmas in Spain as well. People gets an evergreen coniferous tree into their homes and decorate it with all kind of ornaments, Christmas lights, garland, tinsel, glitter... Under the Tree gifts will be placed later so it is really important, but also gives a real warm feeling and meaning of Christmas as well as the Nativity does.
- Christmas Carols ("villancicos"): These typical songs in this time of the year are sung everywhere. Nowadays you can hear them through the loudspeakers in the street or in malls, but there was a time in which the children, with a "zambomba" (traditional drum-like instrument) and a "pandereta" (tambourine) were singing these traditional songs (which are about Bethlehem, the Jesus Child or what is happening to Jesus family) along the streets asking for the "aguinaldo" (Christmas box). The "aguinaldo" consisted of a few coins or some typical sweets of this season.
Below I am adding a video of one of my favourite Christmas carols in Spanish. Besides, I am also giving links to several other Christmas carols which are very popular.
Christmas Carols in Spanish: "Pastores venid", "Los peces en el río", "Arre borriquito", "Campana sobre campana", "Ande, ande, ande la marimorena", "Hacia Belén va una burra, rin, rin", "Veinticinco de diciembre, fun fun fun", "Vintecinco de decembro, fun fun fun - in Galician", "¡Ay del chiquirritín!", "Canta, ríe, bebe", "Campana sobre campana"...
- "Aguinaldo" (Christmas box): Besides the children asking for "aguinaldo" while singing carols, it is also called "aguinaldo" a bonus or special payment received by workers (Year End Bonus). To some other workers, people give "aguinaldo" when they consider they did a good job all year-round. It can be monetary or in kind. Some workers who receive it are postmen, caretakers...
Despite the festive atmosphere might be felt much earlier, if one has to choose a day when the kick-off of Christmas takes place in Spain that is the Christmas Lottery on 22nd December! In Spanish it is called "Sorteo de Navidad" or "Lotería de Navidad" and it is the most popular draw in the whole year. The first ever Christmas Lottery draw took place in 1812 and it is organized every 22nd December ever since. The name "Sorteo de Navidad" was used for the first time in 1892, though. As measured by the total prize payout, the Christmas Lottery is considered the biggest lottery worldwide. Pupils of the San Ildefonso School draw the numbers and corresponding prizes, singing the results aloud in front of the public in a really particular way of singing (see video below). December, 22th is the last day of school for children before the festive season starts. They will be back right after the "Three Kings Day".
On the 24th December, Christmas Eve, families have dinner together to celebrate the birth of Jesus (which will take place in a few hours). Christmas Eve has a family feel and it is a time to be spent at home. Dinner is organized with care.
Dishes prepared depend on each family and each Spanish region. Let's say that in coastal areas one or several of the dishes consist of seafood: fish and shellfish (cod, hake, red bream, gilthead bream, sea bass, sole, crayfish, different kinds of crabs, scallop shell, lobster, barnacles...) while in the rest, dishes consist mostly of meat: roasted beef, capon, turkey, lamb, suckling pig... Of course, both types of dishes are accompanied by vegetables. Typical drinks are wine, cider, cava... and the typical Christmas desserts are sweets like "turrón" (a kind of nougat candy), "polvorones" (I heard it is similar to "shortbread" in New Zealand but cannot confirm it), "mazapán" (marzipan), "mantecados" (traditional Christmas sweets made mainly from lard), nuts, dates, dried fruit... After the dinner, there was a time in which many people were attending the "Midnight Mass" or "Misa del Gallo" in Spanish. This tradition has been forgotten little by little and less people attend this mass nowadays.
On the contrary to many countries in the world, presents aren't exchanged on Christmas Eve (or in Christmas Day). In the latest years Santa is more present than ever, though, and still many children get a "little" gift or sweets, either on December, 24th or 25th. However, there are three Spanish regions which have their own Santa Claus, so to say. In the Basque Country it is called "Olentzero", "Tió de Nadal" in Catalonia and "Apalpador" or "Pandigueiro" in Galicia.
The "Olentzero" is a mythological character of the Basque Christmas tradition, a chubby coal merchant, good-natured and kind, who goes down the mountains to the cities and villages on Christmas Eve and brings the children presents and sweets.
"Tió de Nadal" ("Christmas Log") is a Catalonian mythological character also known as "Tió" or "Tronca" and popularly called "Caga Tió" (pooping or giving log in English). In many Catalan homes you can find the "Tió" as a thirty centimetres long hollow log.
In recent times some accesories have been added to the log altering the more traditional and natural appearance of a dead piece of wood: it stands up on two or four little stick legs, has a broad smiling face which is painted on the higher of the two log ends, a little nose, and, on top, the typical Catalan hat called "barretina". Around the Festivity of the Immaculate Conception (December, 8th) the Tió starts to be feeded every night and it is also covered with a blanket so he won't be cold during the night. On Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day (depending on each family), the Tió is put partly into the fireplace and it is ordered to "poop". To make the Tió poop, it has to be beaten with sticks, while singing various songs of "Tió de Nadal". The Tió does not poop large presents, but Christmas sweets, candy, little gifts...
Finally, the "Apalpador" or "Pandigueiro" is the mythical figure of a coal merchant, that, according to the tradition, lives in the mountains of O Courel and Os Ancares, in eastern Galicia. He goes down the mountains to cities, towns and villages to touch the children's belly and check if they have eaten well during the last year. He gives to children lots of chestnuts, some gifts and wishes for a new year full of happiness and food.
On the 25th December, Christmas Day, families gather together to have lunch. Typical dishes are among the ones I named above, as well as for drinks and desserts. Usually there is a long after-lunch conversation while children enjoy their gifts and sweets. Otherwise it is a calm day to be spent with the family.
The 26th December is festive in many countries, but not in Spain, except for one region: Catalonia. Catalonia's "Boxing Day" is called "Sant Esteve" (Saint Stephen). Catalonians spend this day with the other relatives they could not have lunch with at Christmas Day or relaxing. The typical food eaten on this day are canneloni, made with the leftovers of Christmas Day.
Spain has its particular "April Fool's" on December, 28th, called "Día de los Inocentes" (Innocent Saints). It has its origin in the massacre of children that King Herodes committed in Judea to avoid the loss of his throne to the new-born Jesus Child. Nowadays, pranks and tricks are played on this day on friends and family. Also the media plays tricks, jokes and absurd news which, sometimes, are not that easy to realize!
On the 31st December family have dinner together to celebrate the New Year's Eve (again dishes are some of the explained above). The special tradition taking place in Spain is that when the clock strikes the midnight, one grape for each ring of the bell has to be eaten. If you are able to eat all the grapes, it guarantees a new year full of prosperity, according to the tradition. The twelve grapes are related to the famous "Puerta del Sol Tower Clock" in Madrid, where the goodbye to the old year and the welcome to the new one is always broadcasted on TV. Already in the New Year, people go out to party until the early hours of the morning. Just before coming back home, it is typical to have breakfast: "chocolate con churros" (thick hot drinking chocolate with a thin cylinder of dough, deep-fried in olive oil and often dusted with sugar).
New Year's is a peaceful day where there is a family lunch and a long after-lunch conversation, too, although some people will be sleeping for a long time after partying the whole night. Every January, 1st you can watch the New Year's Concerto from Vienna and the New Year's Ski Jump in Garmisch-Partenkirchen broadcasted in TV, characteristical features of the first day of the year for many people all around the world.
With the arrival of the New Year, all Spaniards know that there is only one celebration (especially dedicated to children) left: "Día de Reyes" or "Three Kings Day". Before January, 5th comes, children have to write a letter to the Three Kings, also known as the "Three Wise Men" or "The Magi". In this letter they have to write about their behaviour during the last year and which toys they would like to receive as a present. The Three Wise Men know very well which children are good and those who aren't that much... so the first ones will surely get presents but the second ones might get coal (nowadays it is candy coal) so they know that the Three Kings are not joking when it comes to reward (or not) them!
On January, 5th around 18:00h the Cavalcade of Magi starts in all Spanish cities, so the children can go and see the Three Kings, who later in the night will be carrying presents to their homes. While riding on the streets, the Magi throw sweet and candy to all the children who crow together to see them. When the night comes, children have to go to bed early, so the Three Kings can visit them. In fact, the Magi will only visit when they know that children are sleeping, this is why they are never seen while delivering presents! It is a magical and special night during which many children are so nervous and excited that sleeping is difficult for them! Before going to bed, some people have the following traditions: some leave their cleaned shoes next to a window or under the Christmas Tree so the Magi know how many children live in that house. Other people also leave food for the Magi: milk and biscuits or some Christmas sweets as well as water for the camels!
On the morning of January, 6th children get up really excited and run to the Christmas Tree to see if the Three Kings left them some presents. It is a thrilling morning for the little ones who are very happy because they got wonderful toys and gifts from the Three Kings! Also adults exchange gifts on the morning of January, 6th. On "Día de Reyes" it is typical to eat "Roscón de Reyes" (Three Kings Bread) for breakfast and even after lunch. The Roscón is a mixture bread roll, decorated with glaced fruits (which symbolize the rubies and the emeralds of the Three Kings robes) and sugar on top. Within the dough there are two small trinkets hidden: a bean and a figurine. The one who finds the figurine will have good luck all the year long, while the one who finds the bean will have to pay the "roscón".
"Día de Reyes" is the last celebration of the Christmas Season in Spain. Children usually don't come back to school until January, 8th as the day after "Three Kings Day" is always a holiday for them (guess to play as much as possible!). Once "Día de Reyes" is over it appears the feeling that the festive season is gone until the next year. In the following days all decorations, the Christmas Tree, the Nativity Scene... will be removed in all houses until nearly one year later when the next Christmas season comes and the same traditions and customs will be present in the lives of Spaniards one more year!
¡Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo!
Feliç Nadal i Bon Any Nou! -Catalan-
¡Bo Nadal e Feliz Ano! -Galician-
If you are interested in reading more articles related to the Christmas time and New Year's, check the following:
- The Saint Nicholas tradition
- Christmas Time
- New Year's Celebrations
- The Three Kings Day or "Día de Reyes"
If you would like to read more interesting stories don't forget to check the links you can find at the following section: Travelling around the World sharing Cultural Heritage, Folklore and Background.