24 Dec, 2021 @ 09:15
3 mins read

Spanish festive traditions: Do you know your Nochebuena from your Nochevieja?

puerta del sol new year spain cordon press
puerta del sol new year spain cordon press. (Photo by Alberto Sibaja/Pacific Press)

NEWCOMERS  to Spain often wonder why resorts turn into spooky ghost towns on Christmas Eve afternoon but there’s a simple answer. It’s the one fiesta the Spanish stay in for!

Aside from ferias and fiestas, the two ‘F-words’ that are firmly ingrained in the Spanish psyche over the festive season are ‘food’ and ‘family’.


Unlike Britain, where office workers migrate to the local pub on Christmas Eve, or to the supermarket for a frantic last-minute trolley dash, come December 24 the Spanish have been there, done that and got the T-shirts wrapped up. They are headed for home to kick-start Nochebuena with a massive family feast…

But you won’t witness the gobbling of turkeys around the Spanish family dinner table. Brussels sprouts (hard to swallow, even if you are British) are also conspicuously absent. A crisp suckling pig or lamb is more to Spanish taste, along with mountains of the most sumptuous seafood the family budget will stretch to.

It’s much later, fuelled with food, that the Spanish hit town: youngsters to discos, older folks to midnight mass, or La Misa Del Gallo (The Mass of the Rooster), so-called because a rooster is said to have crowed on the night that Jesus was born. Parties and socialising until the wee small hours are the big finale to Nochebuena traditions.

Christmas Day is a bit of a non-event for the Spanish who, in traditional mañana fashion, delay the main present-giving until Three Kings on January 6th (who were, themselves, two years late for the Nativity).

Unlike Britain’s presents-at-dawn and all-day banqueting, a lie-in, an Alka-Seltzer and a light salad are the order of the day. Families chill at home or mooch around town to visit the various belenes (nativity scenes). And Boxing Day for us is often back to work for them.

When you wake up on December 28 – the Day of the Innocent Saints – be wary of spoof stories in the morning papers and on the news channels. It’s Spanish April Fools Day – aka Día de los Inocentes! The story behind it is a little more sinister, as it is the day people remember that wicked King Herod had every baby killed in the hope that Jesus would be among them.


New Year’s Eve – Nochevieja – is all about ‘grape’ expectations for the year ahead. The idea is to eat 12 grapes at midnight, being careful to swallow one in time with each stroke of the clock. If you’ve ever tried it with fresh grapes, and found yourself still chewing away on a mouthful of skin and seeds at 12.01, cheat and buy the seedless, skinless tinned variety from the supermarket.

Explains Madrileño Mirian Moreno, now a Costa del Sol resident: “It is one grape for each month and they bring you luck. But some people say it gives you even more luck to do it a day early, and that way you can beat the crowds in the city centres too!”

After that, the Spanish throw themselves into the mother of all parties, without a care for mañana let alone the next 12 months.

Dia de los Magos Reyes

Bigger than Christmas for Spanish children, Three Kings Day on January 6 is when the serious presents are given out.

On January 5, there are float processions through most towns, when the merry monarchs hurl boiled sweets into the crowded streets. Wear sunglasses, as a fruit drop in the eye can be painful!

Children will have written to Santa on our Boxing Day to ask for this year’s must-have toys. On Three Kings Eve, they often leave shoes under the Christmas tree or on the terrace to be filled with presents.

Satsumas, walnuts and a small glass of cognac (rather than milk) are traditionally left out to help Santa on his merry (hic) way.

Naughty children might receive coal but the Three Kings are push-oivers and the lumps of coal are sweets in disguise.

Traditional sweetmeats decorate the family table, such as the Roscon de Reyes, a cake with a hole in it, like a doughnut.

Hidden in the dough, among the figs, cherries and candied peel, is a surprise trinket.The lucky recipient is blessed for the year ahead, but there’s a catch. It’s their turn to buy the cake next year!

Then comes January 7, the day that for many nationalities is better than Christmas, Nochevieja and Three Kings rolled into one. It’s the start of the January sales…

Feliz fiestas!


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