Celebrating Christmas in Spain

christmas3Noisy Parades and Dancing in the Church – Celebrating a Traditional Spanish Christmas!

Watch out! You duck down, just in time, as a group of kids, sitting on a parade float, throw a handful of sweets at you, really hard! The noise is deafening – five different kinds of Christmas music is blasting out from huge speakers, children are shouting, the youngest ones being held up by their parents to see, the older ones busily darting and diving in the crowd, collecting sweets that have fallen on the pavement. Yippee, it’s Reyes! Christmas has arrived for Spanish kids!

The UniSpain guide to traditional Christmas in Spain
Even though many Spanish high streets have now succumbed to the more anglicised Christmas trees and Santa Clauses, real Spanish Christmas traditions are quite different from the holidays celebrated in the UK, USA and Northern Europe.

We wouldn’t want you to miss out on the real Spanish Christmas, La navidad, especially if you’re over here on a UniSpain course, and not flying home for the festive period. So we’ve prepared a handy little Spanish Christmas Guide for you below. It’s peppered with useful Spanish Xmas vocabulary, so nothing will get lost in translation…

The main dates and events
In Spain, Christmas is called La navidad, meaning “nativity”. The whole two-week Christmas holiday period is known as Las navidades.

The principal events are the night of 24th December, known as La nochebuena (“The Good Night”), and Los reyes magos on 6th January, (“The Three Wise Men”). These holidays are based on the Christian Calendar events of Jesus’ birth (Christmas Eve) and when the Three Wise Men arrived bearing presents for baby Jesus (Epiphany).

New Year’s Eve on 31st December falls between the two Christmas events, and is referred to as “La Nochevieja”, or “Old Night”.

La Nochebuena

“Ande, ande, ande, la marimorena… ande, ande, ande ¡qué es la nochebuena…”

This is a really popular Spanish villancico, or Christmas carol, called La Marimorena. Listen to this great rumba version on YouTube to get right into the Spanish Christmas spirit! The carol talks about la marimorena, referring to a big, noisy celebration or party.

What do Spanish families traditionally do on Christmas Eve? Well, when we asked Málaga-born José Manuel about his family’s Christmas Eve celebrations, he told us, “¡Comemos y pegamos voces!” (We eat and shout loudly!). He was referring to the noisy get-togethers that many large Spanish families have at Christmas – if you’ve visited Spain, you’ll know that dining can be a riotous affair, with people excitedly shouting over each other and laughing uproariously. This is definitely the case on 24th December, when just like the carol says, “se arma la marimorena”: the party will be in full swing! Find out more about traditional Spanish Christmas foods below.


La Lotería de Navidad
There is an event that takes place on 22nd December, and deserves a special mention – this is the Spanish Christmas Lottery. Televised and broadcast live on 22nd December from Madrid, it features the children from the San Ildefonso School selecting and “singing out” the Christmas lottery numbers. For many Spaniards, the sound of the San Ildefonso children chanting out the lottery numbers truly marks the beginning of the Christmas holidays.

La Misa del Gallo
With Spain being a predominantly Catholic country, many families also attend midnight mass, or La Misa del Gallo. But if you think of Christmas mass as a quiet, peaceful affair, you may need to think again. Christmas Eve in Spain is considered a night of happy celebrations, and many churches are usually packed to the hilt with happy celebrants clapping and singing along to upbeat Christmas hymns backed by Spanish guitars and tambourines.

Here’s a great video from Cuevas de Almanzora in Almeria, where the local priest always plays his guitar outside the church after mass! You can hear the crowd singing along to another popular Spanish Christmas carol, Los Peces en El Río (The Fish in the River).

As the Spanish saying goes, “Esta noche es Nochebuena, y no es noche de dormir”, which means “Tonight is the Good Night and it is not meant for sleeping.” Whilst Christmas Eve used to be a night enjoyed with family, nowadays the younger crowd will often go out on Christmas Eve after dinner and mass – and bars and clubs will put on extra staff to accommodate the crowds.

La Nochevieja New Years Eve in Spain is another night of food and noisy fun, and a strange custom involving grapes… Las uvas are a dozen grapes that are quickly eaten and swallowed when the clock strikes twelve times for midnight. Spain is the only place in the world with this curious tradition, and if you can eat the grapes fast enough on each stroke, they will bring you luck for the whole year ahead.
Top tip: Buy the small, seedless variety, sold in Spanish supermarkets especially for NYE.

With most people going out to the local town square on New Years Eve, las uvas are usually followed by wild cheering, and kissing everybody you see twice on the cheeks, to happy wishes of ¡Feliz año nuevo! – or just “Feliz año!” for short. Those staying at home will inevitably watch the midnight TVE television broadcast from Puerta del Sol in Madrid, and eat the lucky grapes to the strokes of the Real Casa de Correos clock.

Los Reyes Magos
For the majority of Spanish children, Christmas really arrives on night of the 5th January, because that’s when Los Reyes Magos, the Three Wise Men, arrive bearing presents. Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar usually ride into town in a parade, la cabalgata de Los Reyes. Each Spanish town hall usually organises a parade, mostly sponsored by local businesses.

Each Wise Man has his own carroza, or parade float, where local children picked by congregations, town halls, schools or sponsors sit alongside Los Reyes and throw sweets (often with a bit too much enthusiasm!) at the crowd. Although Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar are the undisputed VIP’s, you’ll often see well-known, giant cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse or The Smurfs, fairy tale creatures and even popular kids’ toys like Mr. Potato Head on the floats. Check out this incredible Reyes parade video from Barcelona, January 2013:

The day following the parades, 6th January, is a bank holiday in Spain. This is when families enjoy time at home, or take a paseo in their Sunday best down the town promenade. On 6th January, it is also traditional to eat the delicious Roscón de Reyes – more about that below.

If you venture out to see the Reyes parade this year, do watch out for the flying sweets! A couple of years back, a lady in Huelva got hit rather hard by a sweet, thrown by King Baltasar himself. She took the matter to the court in hopes of compensation. But the judge ruled that since there had been “a 2000-year debate” about the real country of origin of the Three Wise Men, the court regrettably couldn’t locate Baltasar to demand money for the woman’s medical expenses. Read the El País newspaper article to find out what else the judge had to say.

christmas4The food

Jamón, or ham, may well be the most important word in the Spanish Christmas dictionary. No festive period in Spain would be complete without a fine leg of cured Serrano ham on a display stand. Ibérico hams, from a special breed of Iberian black pigs fed on bellotas, or acorns, are the most renowned for their exquisite taste – as well as their high price. Paper-thin slices are carved off with a special ham knife and served on platters alongside fine queso (cheese) and vino (wine).

Mariscos, or seafood, is a popular Christmas food in Spain. The best kinds of langostinos (king prawns), langostas (lobster) and various shellfish are very popular. Bacalao con coliflor (cod with cauliflower) is a typical Galician Christmas dish.

Pavo, or turkey, is also eaten in Spain at Christmas, roasted in the oven and sometimes stuffed with truffles or mushrooms – and many homes will also enjoy cordero or cochinillo (lamb or suckling pig).

Turrón is a Christmas sweet traditionally made from almonds and sugar. The turrón de Jijona is a light brown, soft, oily almond paste pressed into bars, and turrón duro de Alicante is hard-boiled sugar candy with whole, roast almonds set into the dough. Nowadays, though, you can get all kinds of turrón, including chocolate, fruit and coffee flavours and even sugar-free varieties for diabetics.

Mantecados and polvorones are another very traditional Spanish Christmas sweet, and often an acquired taste for foreigners. This is because in consistency, polvorón sweets are extremely dry – essentially ground almond and sugar pressed into blocks and flavoured with lemon, aniseed or other natural ingredients.

Roscón de Reyes is a magnificent, decorated sweet bread, baked into the shape of a large ring, or roscón, and filled with whipped cream. A Roscón de Reyes will also have a trinket or treasure hidden inside it, like a ring or a coin, and whoever finds it will get to make a wish, or become rich one day…

Cava and cidra (sparkling wine or cider) are the drinks traditionally served at Christmas dinner, on New Years Eve and throughout the holiday season. Anís is aniseed liquor, often served with the sweet polvorones.

Navidad, navidad, dulce navidad…

We hope you’ve enjoyed our special Christmas blog post this year!

All the staff at UniSpain wish you a wonderful Christmas, a happy New Year, and on that note, we’ll leave you singing and dancing along (loudly!) to José Feliciano…


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