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Christmas in Spain: The traditions and customs you need to know
Christmas is just around the corner now and I’ll be heading home to London soon to celebrate with my family. Singing Christmas carols. Meeting my friends at the pub before midnight mass. Eating turkey, roast potatoes and stuffing. Christmas pudding. Mince pies. Christmas crackers. Going to Kempton Park for the King George VI Chase. Boxing Day football. Those are some of my favourite things about my typical Christmas in the UK.
Every country has its own traditions and customs at this time of year. If you’re studying in Spain, you may want to stick around during Navidades as there are some delightful traditions and customs to enjoy over the festive period.
El Gordo (The Big One)
Christmas in Spain unofficially kicks off on December 22nd when the country comes to a stop for El Gordo – the world-renowned lottery draw. People across Spain are glued to the television or radio as they listen to children from San Ildefonso School in Madrid call out the numbers and prizes of the Lotería de Navidad. The ticketing system allows for people to buy fractions and subfractions of a lottery number with increasing chances of sharing the winnings. Once the draw is concluded, coverage turns to winners and the shop where the winning ticket was purchased.
A bit of history for you: San Ildefonso School is the second oldest school in Madrid having opened its doors in 1543. For many years it catered orphans of public servants. Children at the school have called the lottery numbers and winners since 1812, when the Sorteo de Navidad was first organized. It’s the second longest continuously running lottery in the world. The children were chosen because as orphans they were felt to be less susceptible to cheats. Since 1999 not all the students chosen to take part in the lottery number calling are orphans.
Once the lottery celebrations have died down, attention turns to Christmas Eve (Nochebuena). It’s a day when the family gets together and the main meal takes place. Spanish family get togethers involve a great deal of people – aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, second cousins, fifth cousins twice removed. You get it– they are big affairs! And they take their eating seriously. It all depends on the region and the family preference but there are normally a number of courses with the main dish being meat or fish – cordero (lamb), bacalao (cod) or marisco (seafood). The meal lasts well into the evening (or early hours of Christmas morning!).
Día de Navidad - Papa Noel
A relatively new holiday tradition is that of gift giving on Christmas Day itself. Traditionally, presents are given to children on January 6 (Reyes) when the Three Kings arrived at Bethlehem. However, Santa Claus, or Papa Noel in Spanish, is taking on a more prominent role these days, with many parents preferring to give children their presents on Christmas Day so they are occupied for the rest of the holidays! It means parks and plazas across the country on Christmas Day are full of children showing off their new toys to their friends while other family members enjoy the opportunity to grab some fresh air and go for a stroll.
Día de los Santos Inocentes
Watch out on December 28th! El Día de los Santos Inocentes is a day that originally commemorated the young victims of a massacre ordered by biblical-age governor of Judea, Herodes. Inocente in Spanish can also mean naïve and nowadays December 28th is much like April Fool’s Day in other countries with pranksters looking to play jokes on people.
While Nochebuena is a time for family to get together, New Year’s Eve (Nochevieja) is all about celebrating with friends. For the sports fans among you, the San Silvestre run takes place in many cities across Spain. It’s a 10km fun run with many participants dressing up and the streets lined with thousands spectators. In Madrid, around 40,000 people take part in the race making for a great atmosphere.
After dinner at home, people head to city and town squares (the most important being at Puerta de Sol in Madrid) to watch the clock tower and begin the countdown. A curious tradition is the eating of the 12 grapes (uvas) to bring good luck for the year ahead. At every strike of the clock at midnight, observers must wolf down a grape. Sounds easy but try eating 12 grapes quickly! The festivities last long into the night and early hours as Spaniards love to party. For those of you who last the distance, party goers end their night with a trip to a cafeteria or bar for chocolate con churros.
January 1 is a fairly quiet day as the nation recovers from the night before but while the rest of the world is starting to turn its attention back on work or studying again, there’s still more to come in Spain.
After a few days’ respite, Reyes is the next celebration. On the evening of January 5th, the day before the Epiphany, parades take place in towns and cities across Spain featuring the Three Kings (Los Reyes Magos). It’s really an occasion for the children as the kings shower them with sweets as they go past on the floats. After the excitement of the parade, kids find it hard to sleep that night knowing that on January 6th they will wake up to find out what gifts the Three Kings have brought them if they’ve been well behaved. Kids who have behaved badly could find themselves unlucky and wake up to a bag of coal! After the presents have been opened, it’s time for the traditional Reyes breakfast – roscon (a ring-shaped cake filled with cream) with a cup of thick hot chocolate to dip it into. Yum!
Christmas in Spain is a joyous occasion and all about sharing happy times with family and friends. Whether you are religious or not, there is a real festive atmosphere, great food to be enjoyed and new experiences to be had. ¡Feliz Navidad y prospero año nuevo!