It’s the most wonderful time of the year – and not just because it’s Christmas, but because of the whole host of holidays that Spain’s month-long celebration brings. From December 6th until January 6th, get ready to eat, drink and be merry (and go very broke in the process). Wondering how to spend the Christmas season in Spain? Grab some mantecados and read on!
Even though you’ll see lights strung up along main shopping streets and in traversed squares as early as November, it begins to look a lot like Christmas come December 8th, when everyone officially flips the switch on their extravagant lights displays. The 8th happens to be a holiday in Spain, the Day of the Immaculate Conception, which celebrates Catholic’s belief in the biblical artificial insemination of Mary. If you happen to live in Madrid, don’t miss out on the Holiday Navibus, a free tour organized by the tourism office which takes riders past all of the city’s gussied up avenues.
And thus starts the holiday season – from the excess of toy ads on TV to the Christmas carols blasting from the Corte Inglés. These songs, known as villancicos in Spanish, were once folkloric songs of the Iberian peninsula that saw a resurgence in the 20th century. Most of the carols are religious, and don’t be surprised by the urge to hum along to tunes that might sound awfully familiar – just be forewarned, they’ve changed the lyrics into Spanish.
One popular place to sing is during Christmas dinners. Traditionally, employers would pay for a nice, sit-down multiple-course meal as a thank you to employees and to celebrate a job well done. However, the tradition has spread to include groups such as cycling clubs, salsa dancers or just your 20 closest friends who all pitch in for a booze-soaked lunch or dinner. These meals aren’t cheap – 25€ marks the low end – but they’re usually a good time!
In the weeks leading up to the holidays, you’ll notice that storefronts and homes mount miniature towns of Bethlehem, called belenes – enough to blow the Santa’s Village your grandma set out on the dining table to shame. Expect to see far more than baby Jesus’ manger and an odd ox or cow. The norm in Spain is to include the entire town, complete with running water and mechanical figurines. Oftentimes, a belén viviente, or live manger scene, can be viewed at churches and civic centers, and those in Barcelona and parts of the Costa Blanca boast an extra peculiar addition to the tradition: a caganer, or a man squatting in the corner of the inn doing his business (#2, that is).
As the days wind down to Christmas, you’ll see less and less of your friends. Priorities are given to family gatherings. That is until Christmas Eve when most take to the streets to drink in the holiday spirit(s) before heading home for a large meal en familia. On this day, families get together to eat ham, shellfish and drink copious amounts of wine and spirits. Religious families also attend midnight mass, called the Misa del Gallo.
Christmas Day has far less fanfare, and bars are often open to serve patrons, so if you’re spending the holidays away from your family, make plans to meet friends at a watering hole. Spanish ham trumps Christmas ham, anyway. Children don’t receive any gifts on this morning, either, as Santa Claus, known to Spaniards as Papá Noel, is just a fat guy on a Coke can.
Instead, legend has it that the Three Wise Men, Los Reyes Magos, traveled to Bethlehem on camels to bring gifts to Baby Jesus. So rather than a note to Santa, children write to Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar with their wish lists.
We can’t talk about the Spanish holiday season without mentioning typical sweet treats. Apart from roasted chestnuts, mandarin oranges and other winter fruit, Spanish supermarkets begin stocking turrones, mantecados and bonbons. Turrones are made with nougat and extra ingredients such as nuts or liquer, come in two types – soft or hard. Mantecados are crumbly lard cookies, often left out for the Reyes Magos along with a small glass of anise or brandy, and chocolate bonbons are common on the dessert menu.
Surprisingly enough, New Year’s Eve is another family holiday, culminating in yet another huge dinner with seafood and jamón before consuming 12 grapes on the 12 strokes of midnight. The official ‘ball’ drops in Puerta del Sol in Madrid, where citizens will brave the cold to ring in the new year before drowning in copas. Don’t forget to wear your read underwear, either – it’s considered good luck, as is consuming all 12 grapes without choking, one for each month of the year.
Oh, but the holidays don’t end there – children will have school vacations until after the Epiphany on Janary 6th, which is when they’ll finally receive their presents from The Three Kings. On January 5th cities put on elaborate parades to welcome the Reyes Magos and their pages to the city, and the streets rain candy and small toys as floats and brass bands march by. Families snack on Roscón de Reyes, a flaky pastry filled with cream in the center. Traditionally, small figurines are baked into the cake and if you chomp down on one prepare to wear the paper crown, that or pay for the whole cake next year!
Once the holiday jaleo has died down and post-Christmas depression sets in, the next season begins – Operación Bikini.
Have you ever celebrated the holidays in Spain? What are your favorite traditions?