Spanish Christmas Traditions
Like in many parts of the world, the holiday season is a very special and magical time in Spain. It is a time filled with celebration, joy, and deep-rooted holiday traditions all over the country. Here we take a look at some of our favorite Spanish traditions that are celebrated during the Christmas season. As you will see doing a wine tour in Spain is not (yet!) one of the local traditions during Christmas... but we are working on it ;)
The Nativity or Belen de Navidad
Nativity scenes, called belenes, are very typical in Spanish cities and homes. Although they come in all shapes and sizes, the nativity scene always includes figurines of at least Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and the three kings, Baltasar, Melchior and Gaspar. Some families create rather elaborate nativity scenes in their homes while others simply display a small one next to the Christmas tree. You will also find them in practically every town and village of Spain, usually on display in a Plaza Mayor or in front of a church.
The Christmas tree
Though this is not a Spanish tradition in its origin (it started to be used in Germany around the 16th Century). It is not easy to say when the first decorated tree used for Christmas appeared in Spain, though it seems the first public tree was installed near the Prado museum in Madrid back in the Christmas of 1870.
Today many families prepare both the Belen and the Christmas tree, which has gained popularity due to its value as a decoration item. So yes, in Spain, people do also use today the Christmas tree.
Villancicos or Spanish christmas carols
Spanish Christmas carols are also a big part of the holiday season in Spain. These traditional melodies are called villancicos and are mostly sung by children during this special time of year.
Villancicos originated as a poetic and musical form in the Middle Ages. Today, the term merely refers to the traditional Christmas carols sung in Spain and parts of Latin America. Most villancicos are religious-themed. They are very melodic and, in the south of Spain, flamenco is very present in the rhythm of the songs. Two instruments, pandereta and zambomba, are typical for this Spanish christmas tradition.
This is a shortlist with the most famous and popular Christmas carols in Spain:
- Los peces en el Río. Many flamenco artists and popular singers have made versions of this famous villancico
- Ay el Chirriquitin. This is probably the children´s favorite!
- Campana sobre Campana. Andalusian origin
- Burrito Sabanero. Its origin is from Venezuela but it soon became a Spanish favourite too
- El tamborilero. Though originated from the Czech republic, this is one of Spain´s most sang villancicos. It became popular worldwide with an English version from Katherine Davis in 1941
- La Marimorena. Another lively carol children love.
- Arre burro arre: Also known as Arre borriquito, it is one of the most popular carosl in Spamnish language
Other internationally known carosl are also popular in Spain like Navidad, Navidad, Blanca Navidad, or Noche de Paz.
Christmas sweets (turrón, polvorones and mazapan)
Christmas Eve in Spain is the most important gathering of the entire year for Spanish families. Called Nochebuena, meaning 'good night' in Spanish, Christmas Eve consists of a large and lengthy evening meal with the family. At the end of the meal, typical Christmas sweets are served including turrón, marzipan, polvorones, among many other things.
Turrón, a type of nougat made of toasted sweet almonds and honey, is the real star at the dessert table. Marzipan is a traditional dessert of almond and sugar paste made into small little shapes. Polvorones are a type of crumbly shortbread made of flour, sugar, milk, and nuts.
Turron did not originate in Spain though it is the country in the world with the highest consumption and it has been for so many centuries a part of the Spanish gastronomy that it can already be considered a local specialty with no hesitation.
The first evidence of turron is in the word turun which originates in the Arabic peninsula. It would have been introduced by the moors in Spain and it became part of the Christian diet during the XVI century. Its basic composition is as simple as it is delicious: honey and almonds. The reason why it became a Christmas delicatessen has to do with money. Turron, like many other specialties and special dishes which became worldwide food for special occasions, was (and still is when it is of top quality) expensive. Poor people could only afford it on very special occasions, and Christmas would have found its opportunity there!
Last but not least, these delicious Christmas sweets are best paired with a glass of cava, a sparkling wine similar to champagne that is produced mostly in Catalonia. Cava is produced at different regions in Spain but the town of Sant sadurni de Aiona, in the Penedes wine region, concentrates most of it. Two large brands like Freixenet and Codorniu are based in Sant Sadurni. Millions of bottles of cava are opened every year at the same moment at Spanish homes and parties when the new year arrives. Cava consumption grew in the last decades of the XX century thanks to great marketing campaigns from the major cava producers. You can learn more about cava production by joining a cava tasting tour from Barcelona. A great day to start the year in a good way!
Spanish Christmas Lottery
The drawing of the Spanish Christmas lottery on December 22nd marks the beginning of the Christmas festivities for Spaniards. People all over the country are glued to their television screens or radios with the hopes that they have won El Gordo, the name given to the largest prize of the lottery and literally meaning “the fat one”.
At 20 Euros for just 1/10th of a ticket, one can wonder why this lottery is so popular. The grand prize is not that large compared to other lotteries, but it is the most distributed in terms of winnings. Besides El Gordo, thousands of smaller prizes are won by lucky people all over Spain. Almost everyone in the country takes part in some way, either by purchasing tickets on their own or taking part in a pool.
Nearly everybody in Spain plays la Lotería de Navidad and the government-controlled, Loterias del Estado produces fantastic advertising to get people in the mood to share their lottery tickets.
The second-largest draw of the year is the El Niño lottery, which takes place on January 6th also Three Kings Day.
The 12 grapes at New Years eve
Nochevieja, literally meaning ‘old night’, is the term used for New Year’s Eve in Spain. Just before the clock hits midnight, the Spaniards have what can be considered a peculiar tradition. All around the country, the old and young have their 12 sour green grapes ready to ring in the new year, one for every strike of the clock. It is said that if you manage to eat the twelve grapes in the 12 strikes before midnight, you are guaranteed good fortune for the New Year.
Most of the country watches the countdown on television but if you happen to be in Madrid, you can participate in the largest countdown celebration at the Puerta del Sol, Spain’s Times Square. Just don’t forget your grapes!
Roscón de Reyes
Roscón de Reyes is a cake traditionally eaten in Spain on the day that celebrates the arrival of the three kings or Epiphany. The cake is a round or oval shape with a whole in the middle and is usually decorated with candied fruits.
This tradition also entails placing a small figurine and a bean inside the cake. The person who finds the figurine has good luck for the year and the unlucky person who finds the bean has to pay for the cake.
The Three Kings
Spain's Christmas time or Navidades lasts until January 6th with the arrival of the Three Kings or Three Wise Men. Although Santa Clause aka Papá Noel is gaining in popularity throughout Spain, the most anticipated day of the year for Spanish children is “El Día de los Reyes”.
The larger Spanish towns and cities hold a parade on January 5th called the “Cabalgata de Reyes” in which the arrival of the three kings is reenacted. The three kings, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, can be seen on big floats from which they throw candy to the children on the street.
The following day, Los Reyes Magos, as they are called in Spanish, have arrived from the east and left gifts behind which the children open excitedly as soon as they wake up in the morning.
All children write their letter to the Reyes Magos, and on January the 6th a special cake is eaten with chocolate: the Roscon de Reyes.
Cesta de Navidad – Christmas basket
Many companies today continue to provide their employees with a cesta de navidad. The tradition to provide a basket with food dates back to the Roman Empire. In those days, the “sportula” contained dried fruits, olives or plants. In Spain this tradition remains very active and some companies dedicate a very important budget to ensure their Christmas baskets are special.
Originally an extra payment provided by companies for Christmas, the Aguinaldo is now a tip offered for some services during Christmas or a bit of pocket money given to children that sing carols from home to home