This time of year is oriented towards joy and celebration with family and friends. Christmas was originally a religious holiday, and for many it still is, but these weeks are a special time filled with happiness and harmony even for many who do not embrace any religion; the holiday cheer is a welcome change to the not always easy daily grind.
Christmas in Spain gets off to a rather peculiar and unofficial start on Dec. 22nd when children from San Ildefonso School can be heard calling out the numbers and prizes of the Lotería de Navidad, which is likely the most followed Spanish lottery during the entire year. In Spain, when you hear the melodic sounds of the prize draw on the radio, you think: “Christmas time has arrived”.
After the celebration of economic good fortune, Dec. 24th is Christmas Eve (Nochebuena in Spanish), which is a family celebration in which Spaniards often gather around a table loaded with exquisite delicacies to have dinner together (and when we say family in Spanish, the word suggests a great deal of people). The annual family affair is a joyful event, where the sumptuous meal and the high spirits carry on until late at night. Many Christian also attend the Misa del Gallo, a mass service offered at midnight on the 24th during which Christmas carols are sung and accompanied by traditional instruments such as the zambomba (a type of seasonal drum), the carraca (a ratchet like noisemaker), the tambourine, and of course the guitar.
Something of a new holiday tradition has been gaining in popularity in Spain for the last few decades inspired by the popular culture of other countries; Santa Claus, known in Spain as Papá Noel, brings gifts for children to open on Christmas Eve, which means that on Christmas Day parks and plazas fill with children playing with their friends and showing them their new toys. In some parts of Spain, you can find other types of traditional figures such as Olentzero (a coal vender who descends from the Basque mountains to leave gifts for good kids and coal for the bad ones) and Tió de Nadal in Catalonia and Aragon, who deposits gifts and candy in the homes of children. These figures also make appearances on Christmas Day, figures that can be considered natives to the region in contrast to the more recent arrival of Papa Noel.
Another special day that comes around during Christmas time is Dec. 28th, the “Día de los Santos Inocentes”, a day that originally commemorated the young victims of a massacre ordered by biblical-age governor of Judea, Herodes. The governor hoped to eliminate the future threat to his power after prophets announced the recent birth of a new “king of the Jewish people”. The word inocente in Spanish can also mean simple or naïve, and this day in Spain is celebrated in much the same way as April Fool’s Day is in other cultures, meaning Dec. 28th is a day to watch out for tricks or “inocentadas” that pranksters are looking to play on people
While Christmas Eve is a family celebration, New Year’s Eve (called Nochebuena in Spanish) is a time for partying with friends. It is a night for throwing fiestas called “cotillones” or for gathering in town squares under the old clock tower waiting in anxious anticipation for it to strike twelve. According to tradition, observers must wolf down 12 grapes at this time to guarantee good fortune for the New Year. Afterward, excited revelers often offer toasts to the New Year with glasses of cava. The festive spirit continues until the wee hours of the early morning and January 1st is a day of rest for those who have partied away the last night of the old year.
On Jan. 5th, many make their way to their favorite bakeries to order a Roscón de Reyes (a ring shaped cake eaten on Jan. 6th), which they will enjoy for breakfast the following day. Much more than a day for sweet traditions, the main focus here is on the kids, as parades roll through town in which the Reyes Magos (three kings) and their pages shower candy over delighted children. After all the high emotions, nervous kids will have a tough time falling asleep that night, particularly because the following morning is the feast day of the epiphany, when the three kings will traditionally arrive from the east to leave gifts for the well-behaved.
Christmas in Spain is a time of Christmas carols, decorations, festive street lighting, joy, and a festive atmosphere –religious or secular- made evident by the smiles on the faces of people as they look around town for gifts for their loved ones.