Christmas in Spain

In Spain, the Christmas holiday season is full of the usual Christmas festivities, but there is one tradition, not at all common elsewhere. Named "Hogueras" (bonfires), this tradition originated long before Christmas itself. It is the observance of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the beginning of winter. It is characterized by people jumping over fires as a symbolic protection against illness. This fire-jumping can be seen primarily in Granada and Jaen.

The more common traditions include incredibly elaborate "Nacimiento" (nativity scenes), Christmas trees, and remarkable Christmas markets scattered among villages and cities with piles of fruits, flowers, marzipan and other sweets, candles, decorations and hand-made Christmas gifts. Often, as the Christmas Eve stars appear in the heavens, tiny oil lamps are lighted, warming village windows. The crowds at the Christmas market thin as shoppers return to prepare for the coming meal. The Christmas Eve gaiety is interrupted at midnight be the ringing of bells calling the families to "La Misa Del Gallo" (The Mass of the Rooster). The most beautiful of these candlelight services is held at the monastery of Montserrat, high in the mountain near Barcelona, which is highlighted by a boy's choir describes as performing the Mass in "one pure voice."

Christmas dinner is never eaten until after midnight. It is a family feast, and often highlighted with "Pavo Trufado de Navidad" (Christmas turkey with truffles; truffles are a mushroom-like delicacy found underground). After the meal, family members gather around the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols and hymns of Christendom. The rejoicing continues through the wee hours of the morning. An old Spanish verse says...

"Esta noche es Noche-Buena, Y no es noche de dormir"

(This is the goodnight, therefore it is not meant for sleep.)

It is not Santa who comes to Spain bearing gifts, but the Three Wise Men. The Spanish Christmas continues for a few weeks after Dec. 25th. On the Eve of Epiphany, January 5th, children place their shoes on the doorstep, and in the secret of the night, the Three Wise Men pass leaving gifts. January 6th, Epiphany is heralded with parades in various cities where candy and cakes are given to children.

Unlike many other places in Europe, Christmas lights do not go up in Spain until December. Every town and city will decorate the streets. Christmas markets also begin to appear. Christmas trees are on sale everywhere and gypsies begin to sell Christmas trees in the streets.

The first major sign of Christmas is the state-run lottery which is drawn on December 22nd. The 'El Gordo' (the Fat One) is one of the largest lotteries in the world and thousands of people win each year.

In general, Christmas in Spain is based more on a religious theme than in many other places. Churches are packed to capacity, day and night.

For most Spaniards, there are three main stages to Christmas, starting with Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) which is very much a family affair. The evening may start at home but often ends up with a party in a hotel, club or disco with friends and family. It is likely that every generation of the family is represented.

The family Christmas Eve meal is one of the most important meals of the year for a Spanish family and the housewife will be busy preparing the traditional fare.

Seafood is high on the list for the meal and prices tend to go through the roof at this time of year. First on the menu is likely to be plates of cold shellfish and cold cuts of meat. This may be followed by soup then baked besugo (Bream) with potatoes followed by roast lamb or suckling pig. Game is another option although turkey is becoming popular. The meal will be complemented with Cava, Spain's excellent sparkling wine. At the same time, trays of Christmas cakes and sweets will be served. The important sweets are turrón and marzipan. Turrón is a nougat made of toasted sweet almonds and has been made in Spain for over five centuries.

After the meal the adults will then exchange presents. The children will usually only receive a small gift. At midnight, some people will go to the Midnight Mass at the church. Others may stay at home and open a bottle of champagne to celebrate the birth of Christ. Some children go Carol singing and the youngsters may go to bed whilst the adults go out and party until dawn.

Every town and most churches will have a 'belen' which is a nativity display. Some of them are very impressive and can cover massive areas. Some are animated and illuminated and draw huge crowds.

Christmas Day is a fiesta day so all banks and shops are closed, probably to recover from the night before. Christmas Day in Spain is one of the quietest of the year. Anyone wanting to eat out on this special day will have to book well in advance.