Christmas traditions in Spain

Christmas is a very religious time in Spain. It officially begins December 8, with the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is celebrated each year in front of the great Gothic cathedral in Seville with a ceremony called Los Seises or the “dance of six”.

A very important Christmas symbol in Spain is the Nativity scene.  They are exposed in plazas in cities and small towns throughout the country, and can also be seen in the doorways and entrances of many Spanish homes, as well as in storefront windows.  In many small towns, plazas might even have a live Nativity scene, with actors and actresses playing the parts of Mary and Joseph and the three wise men as well as live animals.

In Catalonia a very typical character is the “Tío de Nadal”. It is a hollow log, about thirty centimeters long with a broad painted smiling face, enhanced by a little red sock hat and often a three-dimensional nose.
Beginning with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), one gives the tió a little bit to “eat” every night and usually covers him with a little blanket so that he will not be cold at night.

On Christmas day one puts the tió partly into the fireplace and orders it to “poop” presents. To make him “poop”, one beats him with sticks, while singing various songs of Tió de Nadal.

Christmas Eve in Spain, called “Nochebuena”, just like in many parts of the world, is celebrated with two very important traditions, eating an enormous meal, and going to Christmas mass.  There is a wide variety of typical foods one might find  on plates across Spain on this night.  Each region has its own distinct specialties.  Among typical dishes served on Christmas Eve and during the days that follow are roast lamb and suckling pig (typically served in the regions of Castilla León, Castilla la Mancha, and Madrid), foul like turkey or duck (commonly prepared in Andalucía), and an enormous variety of seafood, including shrimp, lobster, crab, and various types of fish like hake, trout, sea bream, sea bass, and salmon (common in many regions, but mostly on the coasts).  For dessert, there is quite a spread of delicacies, among them are turrón and marzapan, desserts made of honey, egg and almonds that are Arabic in origin, as well as polvorones, a sweet bread kind of like elephant ears, and a variety of nuts and dried fruits.  To drink, one must have a glass of cava, the Spanish equivalent of champagne.  After the meal, many Spaniards get their second wind and go to midnight mass, known as “La misa del Gallo”, or “Rooster Mass”, named such because the Rooster  is known as the first to announce the birth of Christ.

On Christmas day people spend time with their families, they eat another large meal, and children enjoy the gifts that they have received from “Papa Noel”, the Spanish equivalent of Santa Claus.  The custom of giving gifts on this date is not as popular as it is in many countries, as Spaniards traditionally wait until Three King’s Day to exchange gifts.

New Year’s Eve, or Nochevieja, in Spain, is quite an impressive spectacle.  In all plazas one can see a similar scene that includes church bells and grapes.   When the clock strikes 12, the church bells sound 12 times, and at this moment all Spaniards eat 12 grapes, one for each toll of the bell. This lively celebration will go on until the wee hours of the morning.

January 6, Three King’s Day, is the long awaited day in which the three Kings bring their gifts.  Before going to bed on the 5, children leave their shoes out in a visible spot in the house or on their balcony and hope when they wake up they will find gifts left by Melchor, Gaspar, and Balthasar.  For breakfast or after lunch, families often have the typical dessert of the day, the “Roscón de los Reyes”, a large ring shaped cake that is decorated with candied fruits, symbolic of the emeralds and rubies that adorned the robes of the three kings.  Somewhere inside the cake there is a surprise, and the person to find it will be crowned King or Queen of the house for the remainder of the day.

Merry Christmas from Gourmand Breaks in Spain! If you would like to come to do a private tour around Christmas and New Year then there really is no better place to be for this festive season than Andalusia in our Highlights of Spain Luxury Tour– watch first hand the ceremony of Los Seises from Seville Cathedral or soak up the New Years eve atmosphere in Spain´s capital city, Madrid.