Christmas is a very special time of the year wherever you are in the world, and with their rich cultural beliefs and great love of a good get together, nobody does it quite like the Spanish!
With Christmas just around the corner, December is a big month for fiestas throughout Spain, with the festive season commencing early and continuing throughout the first week of the New Year. Following the religious roots of Christmas, the first national Spanish holiday falls on 8 December, when the holy ceremony of the “Inmaculada Concepción”, or Immaculate Conception, is observed. Typical celebrations surrounding the anniversary include street parades, music and dance, along with a mass ceremony to honour the Virgin Mary. This marks the official start of the Christmas period, and is followed in most major towns and cities by a host of festive fun, such as the unveiling of the “Belen”, or Nativity Scene which are often displayed in the town square; switching on the Christmas tree lights; and carol services in churches and other public areas. Many people feel that Christmas in Spain is much less commercialized than in other parts of Europe, with cards, gifts and decorations usually appearing in the shops from around the beginning of December, as opposed to at the end of the Summer as they are in the UK and US! There is also less pressure to splash out on expensive presents for family and friends, with homemade gifts such as crocheted blankets, wool knits, wooden crafts and even cakes and confectionary being among the gifts which might be exchanged. For Spaniards, Christmas is more a time for showing your nearest and dearest how much they mean to you, and it really is the thought that counts rather than the extravagance of your gift.
With the continuing fine weather, it can be difficult to believe that Christmas is really upon us, although the festive spirit is easily stirred with a seasonal glass of sherry or mosto! Sweet treats are also an important element in the Christmas preparations, with tables typically laden with a selection of delights to which relatives and other visitors are welcomed to help themselves. Turrón, which is a type of nougat, is a festive favourite, and traditionally available in hard or soft recipes, combining such ingredients as whole or ground almonds, honey and egg white, along with a range of chocolate variations. Marzipan figurines and “polvorones” which are soft, crumbly cakes made with lard, flour and cinnamon are widely available throughout the festive season, alongside of sugar coated almonds and roasted chestnuts.
A Slice Of The Fat One
The exciting countdown to Christmas is suitably marked by the “El Gordo” Lottery, or “The Fat One” as it is known in English, which is famous for hosting the biggest prize fund of any lottery in the world. The annual draw takes place on 22 December when the entire country grinds to a halt to tune in to their televisions and pray that they might be the owner of one of the precious winning tickets. As the initial cost of tickets is high, priced at 200€ each, they tend to be purchased by syndicates enabling families, businesses or even entire villages to scoop a sizeable share of the jackpot. Alternatively, tickets can be split into decimos – tenths, and individuals may only buy a single decimo enabling them to win a tenth of the prize that the ticket wins. The rules are quite complicated, but as a rough guide there are 160 series, with each series holding a jackpot of four million Euros and around 15,000 smaller prizes. Each series has 100,000 tickets, numbered from 00,000 to 99,999. The draw is a timely process lasting over three hours, and is called by two children whose jobs it is to sing out the prize amount and ticket number consecutively until the last prize is claimed. If hopefuls do not hit the big time on El Gordo, they have a second shot at it on 5th January, which coincides with the Three Kings Day Processions, when the more modest “El Niño” lottery is drawn.
The Festive Feast
Christmas Eve is a real family affair in Spain, with many bars and restaurants closing their doors so that they may enjoy their traditional Christmas celebrations at home. Unlike in other parts of Europe, where friends often gather in groups to celebrate the joys of the season and imminent arrival of Santa Claus, you are unlikely to receive an invitation to dine in a Spanish household, as family means exactly that. Christmas Eve is the time when Spaniards enjoy their main festive meal, which will typically consist of several courses including a selection of cheeses and hams, followed by a seafood course of crab and lobster, and various other nibbles in between. Feasting continues well into the night, although proceedings are interrupted at midnight when crowds congregate at the local church to observe the “Misa del Gallo” (Mass of the Rooster), so named after a rooster which supposedly called out to announce the birth of Jesus. There are various ways to wish someone a Merry Christmas, depending on what part of Spain you live: throughout most of Spain we say “Feliz Navidad”, then “Bon Nadal” from Catalonia and Valencia, “Eguberri On” from the Basque Country and “Bo Nadal” from Galicia! Following mass and the sharing in goodwill wishes, families return to their homes where the adults will often exchange gifts, and the children might receive a small surprise although have to wait until Kings Day on 6 January for their main presents.
As the feasting and first phase in the exchange of gifts has been done, Christmas Day has far less significance in Spain than it does in the UK and Ireland. It tends to be a more modest affair, which immediate, rather than extended family will share. During recent years, people have begun to dine out on Christmas Day, with restaurant owners taking the opportunity to cash in on the celebrations with expensive set menus that must be reserved well in advance. This trend is mainly followed by the most affluent families, whilst others will dine in or meet friends for celebration drinks later on. Indeed, by the evening of 25 December many shops and bars will be open for business as usual, and the streets are often humming with activity- a very different picture to the night before!
Cheeky New Year Traditions
New Year’s Eve, or Noche Vieja, is the next big celebration on the festive itinerary, and is celebrated in much the same manner as in other parts of Europe. Family and friends will get together, either in restaurants, bars or in each other’s homes, to rejoice the coming of a New Year and wish everyone peace, happiness and prosperity. It is a Spanish custom for ladies to wear red underwear on New Year’s Eve, and in the quaint Valencian village of La Font de Figuera, they have taken this one step further, and actually run through the streets proudly flashing their crimson bra and knickers! As with many Spanish celebrations, New Year’s Eve parties tend to start quite late, commencing at home with a family dinner, then tumbling out onto the streets after the strike of midnight to continue until sunrise! It is not uncommon for party goers to return to their homes at around 07:00 on New Year’s Day- which as you might guess is generally spent sleeping off the effects!
One particular New Year tradition which is unique to Spain is the consumption of twelve whole grapes at midnight, which dates back over 100 years. Legend has it that it was started by a group of superstitious Farmers, who were left with too many grapes after the harvest, so rather than dispose of the surplus, and thus tempt fate risking a famine the following season, they decided that they would each eat twelve grapes at the twelve bongs of midnight. The tradition was gradually adopted by party goers throughout the country, and it has become almost like a game to see who can manage to eat all of their grapes in time and without biting into one of the bitter seeds! Every grape swallowed will supposedly bring a month’s worth of good luck, so if you are quick enough to gulp down a dozen then you should be in for a pretty good year ahead! Interestingly, it is possible to celebrate New Year’s Eve as many as six times in Spain, which is great news for anyone who loves to party! These fall in mid-December, usually the second Thursday before Christmas, which is known as Noche Vieja Universitaria or University New Year; Midday, as opposed to midnight on 30 December, when the “Ensayo de las Campanadas” or bell-ringing rehearsal is observed in Puerta del Sol, Madrid; then later on the same day when the Campanadas Alternativas para Frikis, or Alternative Bell-Ringing for Geeks celebration is marked; and also on 30 December at 20:00 the town of Lepe celebrates New Year’s Eve a day early- but still celebrates it again the following day too! And finally is what we might regard as the real New Year’s Eve on 31 December. So if you feel like celebrating a New Year’s week party, rather than New Year’s Eve, then you are more than justified in doing so in Spain, although you never heard that from us!
Welcoming The Kings
Finally, we come to Epiphany, the Dia de Los Reyes which falls on 6 January and is perceived by many to be the most important date in the festive calendar, especially for youngsters! The fun commences on the evening of the 5, when the three kings lead a grand procession through the streets throwing sweets to the excitable children as they go. The procession is often accompanied by an entourage of bands, dancers and decorated trailers carrying local groups or societies from the town. Street sellers line the pavements with churros, toffee apples and roasted nuts and neighbouring bars often take advantage of the mass of people venturing out by offering special menus and warming drinks offers. The parade can take several hours to pass through the streets so if you plan to go and watch one then you are well advised to wrap up warm! On returning home children will leave shoes under their Christmas trees or on balconies or window sills, to be filled with presents; and maybe even a gift or glass of cognac for the kings and bucket of water for the camels.
The following morning children awake to find that their presents have been delivered by the Kings as they were to the baby Jesus, although most will hope to see an XBox or IPad in their stocking rather than Frankincense or Myrrh! A popular Kings Day tradition is to share a “Roscón” or ring shaped roll, which is a large, sweet, donut-shaped bread covered in glace cherries and sugar. A plastic toy is added to the mixture prior to baking, and the person who finds it in their piece should expect to receive good luck throughout the next year. If you do not feel ambitious enough to make one yourself, roscóns can be purchased in most supermarkets during the week leading up to Kings, and whilst they are not the tastiest looking cakes, the novelty sees them selling in their thousands!
From everyone at Spanish Property Finders we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.