Christmas in Spain

Carmen Cotelo

Christmas in Spain is, like most of our holidays, a time to spent eating and drinking with family and friends. How you celebrate it depends largely on what part of Spain you are from.

The first thing you would notice if you went to Spain is NOTHING. That is, you won’t see any Christmas decorations in the streets or in the shops until well into December and most families won’t decorate their homes until December 15 or later. As a kid I loved assembling the Belén (Nativity). Many households have one and every year we buy a new figurine for it, so they get larger. Tinfoil rivers, moss lawns and hills, the Nativity scene itself, the Magi, shepherds, sheep, chickens, and the occasional Little People and toy soldiers find their place on the big board children decorate with their parents.

Dec 22 marks the start of the Christmas period for most of us. Children start their holiday break (Dec 22 – Jan 8!) and we gather around the television to know if we have won el Gordo, the Spanish Christmas lottery that is held that day and is considered the biggest lottery worldwide. Each lottery ticket (décimo) costs around $25 and typically you buy one and split it in smaller portions called participaciones worth anything from $1-$5 that are given out as presents or sold at local businesses. So when you win chances are a lot of your friends, family or coworkers have won too. Pretty much every Spaniard has at least a small portion of a ticket, and we love watching people celebrate in the streets and knowing their stories, many of which feel like little Christmas miracles.

Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) is when families get together for a large dinner at the end of which we toast with cava (Spanish champagne). From this day until the end of the holiday season you will find all over the place trays of assorted Spanish Christmas sweets – nougat, marzipan figurines, polvorones (Spanish shortbread) and many more. Although Papá Noel (Santa) visits Spanish children and leaves one gift, it is the Reyes Magos (the Magi) who will bring most of them on January 6. So on Christmas day we take it easy and we have a long leisurely lunch. There is no such a thing as Boxing Day because Christmas shopping is done until the evening of January 5, but on Dec 26 kids usually write their letter to the Magi.

On December 28 we celebrate The Feast of the Holy Innocents which is the Spanish equivalent of April Fool’s Day, so you have to watch out or you will get pranked.

New Year’s Eve is celebrated with another huge dinner, and at 12 o’clock we eat 12 lucky grapes with the 12 strokes of the clock and toast with cava. After that we play family board games, cards or bingo, except for the youngsters who go out clubbing.

On January 5 all families go out to the Epiphany parades that are held in most towns to welcome the Magi. Each King has its own float. We call them Gaspar, Melchor and Baltasar. Before going to bed kids leave their shoes under the tree to be filled with presents. They also leave liquor and walnuts for the kings and water for the camels.

At Epiphany we have for breakfast a special cake called Roscón de Reyes and we enjoy the sight of happy children.

¡Feliz Navidad! ¡Bo Nadal! Merry Christmas!