FISH for Christmas dinner? No presents on Christmas Day? Grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve? What is going on? Paul Whitelock checks out the Christmas scene in Spain in general and Andalucía in particular.
Spain enjoys its Christmas traditions as much as any other Christian countries and cultures, but there are some intriguing differences to the way the Spanish celebrate Navidad.
Just like anywhere else, families gather together to enjoy and celebrate. Whatever the case the goal is to share in the spirit of giving, kindness, and goodwill through food, drink, song, dance, the exchanging of gifts, and other acts of generosity. In Spain, Christmas is a festival with fascinating traditions and customs that reflect the true character of the Spanish people.
The Christmas period starts as early as December 8th with the Festival of the Immaculate Conception, a national holiday. It is celebrated each year in front of the great Gothic cathedral in Sevilla with a ceremony called Los Seises or the “dance of six.” when ten elaborately costumed boys perform a ritual dance.
By early December the streets of towns and villages will have been decorated with Christmas lights and the shops will have begun to display their Christmas wares.
One symbol of Christmas that still maintains great importance throughout Spain is the belén, a Nativity scene or crib. Often there will be a large municipal belén set up in the main square. And families will queue up to look at it! Many Spanish homes also have their own belén where in times gone by the family would gather to sing carols. In many small towns, during the nights just before Christmas, the plazas might even have a live Nativity scene, with actors playing the parts of Mary and Joseph and the Three Wise Men, as well as live animals that are often associated with the birth of Christ, like lambs, sheep, and donkeys.
Talking of animals, did you know that the humble cow is an important Christmas symbol here? The Spanish especially honour the cow at Christmas because it is thought that when Mary gave birth to Jesus the cow in the stable breathed on the Baby Jesus to keep Him warm.
On December 22nd, two important events take place. Schools break up for Christmas and the winning number in the famous Christmas Lottery, el Gordo, is announced. The lottery, one of Europe’s oldest, dates back to 1763, when King Carlos III initiated it. Since then, not one year has passed without it and it now it is the symbolic moment when Spaniards begin to celebrate the Christmas holidays in earnest.
An interesting tradition, predominantly in the provinces of Granada and Jaén, is that of jumping over bonfires, or hogueras, as a symbolic protection against illness. It is the observance of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the beginning of winter.
Christmas Eve, Nochebuena, is when the Spanish eat their main Christmas meal. Each region has its own distinct specialities. A common main course, particularly in Andalucía and in coastal areas, is fish, such as hake, trout, sea bream, sea bass or salmon. In central areas like Castilla León, Castilla la Mancha, and Madrid roast lamb and suckling pig are served. For dessert there is quite a spread of delicacies, among them are turrón and marzipan, desserts made of honey, egg and almonds that are Arabic in origin, as well as polvorones, a type of sweet bread, and a variety of nuts and dried fruits. To drink, they opt for cava, the Spanish equivalent of champagne. After the meal, many Spaniards get their second wind and go to midnight mass, known as La misa del Gallo, or “Cock Mass”, named because the Cock crowed on Christmas morning to announce the birth of Christ.
Christmas day, el Día de Navidad, is more or less a continuation of what began the day before. People spend time with their families, they eat another large meal, and in many families, children enjoy the gifts that they have received from Papa Noel, the Spanish equivalent of Santa Claus. However, the main exchange of gifts does not take place until the Día de Reyes, Three King’s Day, on January 6th.
December 28th marks a day of celebration exclusively Spanish called el Día de los Inocentes, the Day of the Innocents. It represents the anniversary of the murder of babies committed by Herod in Judea. However, this day is far from sombre. Roughly equivalent to our April Fools Day it is a day for practical jokes and laughter.
December 31st, New Year’s Eve, Nochevieja, is celebrated, as are so many other things in Spain, out on the streets and in the local squares. People turn up with a bagful of grapes and as the town clock is striking midnight, everybody attempts to eat 12 grapes. According to tradition, those who succeed will have 12 months of good luck and prosperity. Families and friends stay together for this celebration which marks the end of one year and the beginning of a new one, and in the case of most Spaniards this means a lively celebration will be had until the early hours of the morning, with fireworks and much drinking.
While most of the Christian world has already begun packing up the Christmas decorations, throwing out the tree, and finding a place for all the gifts, Spaniards are continuing the celebration. January 6th, el Día de Reyes, Three King’s Day or Epiphany, is the long-awaited day on which the three Kings bring their gifts. On January 5th, children leave their shoes out in a visible spot in the house or on their balcony, and go to bed hoping that when they wake up they will find gifts left by Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar. Shoes are filled with straw or barley for the tired camels that must carry their royal riders through the busy night. By morning the camel food is gone and in place of the straw or barley are presents.
For breakfast or after lunch, families often have the typical dessert of the day, el Roscón de los Reyes, a large ring-shaped cake that is decorated with candied fruits, symbolic of the emeralds and rubies that adorned the robes of the three kings. Somewhere inside the cake there is a surprise, and the person to find it will be crowned King or Queen of the house for the remainder of the day.
Most big towns and cities have Epiphany Parades with each King having a big float that is shaped like a camel. Sometimes there are also real camels in the parade too.
So, the Christmas period in Spain lasts for a good month and however strange or different some of the Christmas customs in Spain seem to us guiris, one thing is for sure, everybody has a good time!
¡Feliz Navidad! ¡Bon Nadal! ¡Bo Nadal! ¡Eguberri on!