I have found myself as this time of the year comes around having to explain to my American/Irish/English friends some of the many differences associated with the Spanish Christmas I grew up knowing and still celebrate. It’s interesting to see how despite sharing the same celebration, Spanish Christmas has its own many quirks others are completely unaware of. Keep on reading if you don’t believe me!
1. The Christmas lotto
Christmas in Spain starts with the Christmas lotto on the 22nd December. Tickets are 20 euro and everybody would buy at least one, with some ending up with more than 10 tickets. The most popular lotto-selling stand in Spain, Doña Manolita, in Madrid, is over 100 years old and has hours-long queues with people trying to buy their tickets. In fact, the ad for the Christmas lotto is patiently awaited for every year, much like the John Lewis ad is over here in England. This year’s one features an old lady who believes she is after winning the lotto and shows how the whole village comes together to celebrate. It is a tear-jerker! Another aspect that makes the Christmas lotto special is it is sung by the children of a school in Madrid. It is a strange as it sounds, but a memory I fondly associate with Christmas.
We take the Nativity, or “Belén” as we call it in Spanish, very seriously. In fact, I’d say it is nearly more important than the Christmas tree. You will definitely find one in every house. Not only that, but in most towns you will find some really big walk-through ones. Some places, like Gran Tarajal in Fuerteventura, do a live version every year, while others like Las Canteras in Gran Canaria have a gigantic one at the beach made out of sand. You can find Nativities of all sorts!
Also, if you happen to have visited a Spanish nativity you may be wondering why they all seem to feature a guy taking a shit? The caganer, as we refer to it, originates from the Cataluña region, but it has been adopted by many other regions in Spain as well. I have tried to find out why it’s a thing, but historians don’t seem to have found any conclusive reason as to why we have decided to include a guy taking a shit in our Nativities for centuries.
3. April’s Fools day
Here is another weird one: we don’t celebrate April’s fools day in April but in the middle of Christmas – the 28th of November to be exact. We also obviously don’t call it April’s fools day but ‘Dia de los Inocentes’, which would translate to something like Innocents’ Day or Naive People’s Day. There’d be special TV programs pranking famous people, fake news going around, as well as the usual carry on you’d find for April’s Fools in most other places. So beware if you happen to be visiting Spain on the 28th December – there might be a lot of coins stuck to the ground and it’s not because the Spaniards are a bunch of pricks, but because it is our national pranking day.
4. 12 grapes and other quirks of New Year
Much like most other things in this list, I grew up completely unaware eating 12 grapes to welcome the New Year was not something everybody did. And I don’t know why but this one specially seems to come up a lot in conversation. I remember the first time was probably a conversation with my Irish family along the lines of :
“well, you know when you are eating the 12 grapes for New Year’s…”
“The 12 grapes for New Year’s…”
“What the heck!? You eat 12 grapes for New Year’s?”
I still get the same reaction when I tell people, except I am now expecting it. But hold on, because that’s not the only quirk associated with celebrating New Year’s Eve in Spain!
First, everybody dresses up as if they were going to a ball. Guys would be wearing a suit and girls would have put a lot of thought into what dress they’d be wearing this year. Also, red underwear must be worn for good luck! The whole smartly-dressed-red-underwear-wearing Spanish family would reunite, usually at the granny’s house, and have a full blown Christmas dinner all over again. This varies from one Spanish region to another, but where I come from it involves traditional Spanish chicken soup followed by pork, prawns and potatoes/vegetables. Shortly before midnight, everyone would grab their own pack of 12 grapes and their ‘cotillón’, which is basically a special New Year’s party bag, containing party hats, whistles, confetti and the sort. All TV channels would have a live transmission from usually the clock at la plaza del Sol in Madrid. At exactly midnight, there’d be exactly 12 gongs and with every gong a grape is eaten, to bring luck to every month of the new year. The cotillones would then be opened, everybody would put on their party hats and collars and there’d be a toast with Cava (Spanish wine). The children would now go to sleep while the young and some not-so young would go out and party until morning, starting the first day of the year with churros with chocolate for breakfast.
5. Three Wise Men
No, it’s not over yet, there’s more! Bombshell: we don’t open our presents on the 25th but on the 6th January, which we refer to as ‘Día de Reyes’! With globalization, Spain has also started to adopt the idea of Santa and you may find that he would stop by some houses and leave a little something on the 25th. However, in most houses, even the ones in which Santa has already stopped by, the presents are delivered by the three wise men on their camels on the night of the 5th January. Every town would in fact have a mini-parade that evening featuring the arrival of Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar (the names of the three wise men) on camels, handing out sweets.
6. Roscón de Reyes
I decided to leave out food completely out of this post, as there is enough material there for a post of its own (maybe next year?), but I couldn’t possible leave out the Roscón de Reyes. The roscón is a round donut-like cake as the one below, eaten by every family on the 6th January. Inside every roscón there is a hidden bean as well as a small porcelaine figure of one of the three wise men. Whoever gets the bean in their piece must buy the roscón the following year, while getting the porcelaine figure means good luck for the year ahead!
So there you have it, Spanish Christmas as wonderful and as weird as it may be. Hopefully you won’t be taken by surprise if you happen to be spending this holiday season in Spain!
Had you heard of these before? Do you have a favourite? Let me know!