What are the Christmas traditions in Spain?

The Three Wise Men form part of the Spanish Christmas celebrations / Gtres
The Three Wise Men form part of the Spanish Christmas celebrations / Gtres
11 December 2019, Tom Beck

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, and Spain is no different. But Spanish Christmas decorations and activities and New Year customs may be a bit surprising. Here are the 9 weirdest and wackiest Christmas and New Year celebrations in Spain:

There is no Santa Claus

Traditionally, Spanish people have never celebrated Father Christmas coming to town in December. Instead, the presents are delivered to children on 6th January by the Reyes Magos, the Three Wise Men. This means Spanish kids have to wait a full twelve days more than us to receive their gifts, although nowadays this is starting to change, and they get Christmas presents on both Christmas Day and 6th January, which is the Feast of the Epiphany.

What’s more, the Reyes Magos parade down the streets of every village and city in Spain on 5th January every year, riding on big parade floats and throwing sweets and candy to the children. This parade, known as the ‘cabalgata, is a Spanish Christmas tradition you simply can’t miss.

The fat lottery

Children call out the 'gordo' lottery numbers live on television / Gtres
Children call out the 'gordo' lottery numbers live on television / Gtres

Every Spanish person plays the lottery at Christmas, often buying a tenth of a ticket and playing the same numbers as their group of friends or coworkers. This special Christmas lottery is called ‘El gordo’, or ‘the fat one’, and the numbers are normally announced throughout the whole morning of 22nd December on live TV. Not only that, but they actually have school children singing the winning numbers and jackpots!

They eat grapes to celebrate New Year

The Spanish New Year tradition is to eat grapes / Wikipedia
The Spanish New Year tradition is to eat grapes / Wikipedia

The clock is counting down to the New Year, and in every town square and every household in Spain, people are holding a handful of 12 grapes to say goodbye to 2019... 3… 2… 1… and instead of shouting “Happy New Year!” and kissing each other, the Spaniards are busy trying to eat the twelve grapes before the twelve chimes of the bells are over. If you don’t manage to eat them all, they say you’ll have bad luck for the following year. Best to eat those New Year grapes just in case.

Christmas food in Spain

The Roscón de Reyes is the typical festive cake in Spain / Wikipedia
The Roscón de Reyes is the typical festive cake in Spain / Wikipedia

We all know that Spain does great food, and at Christmas they have some great festive specialties. The main Crimbo meal normally takes place on 24th December, Christmas Eve, and they eat the obligatory Serrano ham, but seafood and fish also play a big part in the menu, especially king prawns. For dessert, there is the almond sweet turrón and the Roscón de Reyes, a cake filled with whipped cream with candied fruits on top and a bean and a figurine baked inside. If you get the piece with the little toy, you win the honour of wearing a crown, but if your slice contains the bean, you’ll have to pay for next year’s roscón!

Portal de Belén

Nativity scene set showing characters from the birth of Christ / Gtres
Nativity scene set showing characters from the birth of Christ / Gtres

The portal de Belén is a common Spanish Christmas decoration, with many shops and homes setting one up. So what is a portal de Belén? This model of Bethlehem uses small models and figures to represent the Nativity scene of Jesus’s birth. It can be as simple as just Mary, Joseph and Jesus in his manger, or they can be huge and elaborate structures showing the desert, the 3 Wise Men, and even the ‘caganer’, a tiny figurine of a guy pooping on the floor.

The 'caganer' is a staple of many nativity scenes / Wikipedia
The 'caganer' is a staple of many nativity scenes / Wikipedia

The Caga Tió

In Catalonia, they have their own peculiar scatological Christmas tradition – a log decorated with a face and legs that is kept in the house or garden, and covered with a blanket so it doesn’t get cold. It’s called the Caga Tió’, the pooing log. On Christmas Day, Catalan children smack the log with sticks, singing a song that implores it to defecate sweets for them. Then they peel back the blanket and find the candy they were hoping for!

The Basque Santa Claus

Meanwhile, the Basque Country has its own version of the jolly fat man who only exists in that region. His name is Olentzero, and he’s a giant who dresses in peasant’s clothing, smokes a pipe, and on the night of 23rd December in Bilbao, he travels along Gran Via towards the Arriaga Theatre, ready to leave presents for the little kids on Christmas Eve.

April Fools’ in December

Many cultures share the tradition of a day set aside for playing pranks and making jokes. While we’re used to having April Fools’ Day on 1st April, Spain is different and they do it on 28th December with the Día de los Santos Inocentes. Watch your back if you’re in Spain on this day, because you might get pranked at any moment.

Midnight mass

The Wise Kings on the Epiphany, the Nativity scene, the Innocent Saints Day… all these Spanish Christmas customs come from the fact that Spain is a traditionally Catholic country, and it is common practice for people to go to church on Christmas Eve after their big Christmas dinner for the misa del gallo’ at 12 pm. In this midnight mass, Spanish people reaffirm their faith and praise the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day.

So now you know all about the wonderful Christmas and New Year traditions in Spain, there’s nothing stopping you from celebrating these holidays in true Spanish style. ¡Feliz navidad!

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