The Spanish certainly know how to celebrate Christmas. Here's how they do it:
by Steve Lean
Christmas in Spain differs in many ways from our normal celebrations in the UK, the US and other western countries. For a start, it is nowhere near as blatantly commercialised. The Spanish treat Christmas very much more as a religious event. It is very rare to see Christmas lights, displays and produce in stores much before December.
This is a welcome change from the relentless promotion of Christmas from October onwards, as we have become used to. Once they get going though, the Spanish will throw themselves fully into the spirit of Christmas.
Every town and city will have its streets adorned and decorated with lights and nativity displays. These displays have very important religious meaning and are called the Belén.
Christmas trees magically seem to appear for sale everywhere and pointsettiers, the traditional red-leaved plants, are planted in just about every public and municipal garden.
As well as the traditional trees in the home there will also be small versions of the Belénes, or nativity scenes. These will always include the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the Three Kings.
The Spanish Christmas generally kicks off on December 22nd with the world’s biggest lottery draw: El Gordo (the Fat One).
This takes place over many hours throughout the day and is watched or listened to by most of the population of Spain. The prize fund for this Christmas lottery totals a mind-blowing 2.1 billion euros!
It has some of the best odds of winning in the world, with a 1 in 6.4 chance of winning one of the 2.4 million prizes.
Tickets are 200 euros each but can be broken down into tenths, so for 20 euros you can have a share.
Sometimes you will find whole towns and villages clubbing together to buy tickets. Or clubs, workplaces and other syndicates doing the same.
Christmas Eve is called Nochebuena (goodnight) and is the most important family gathering of the year.
People will often meet in bars early in the evening for a few drinks with friends then return home to the family and have their main celebratory meal. Fish or seafood starters followed by a roast will be a typical meal. Lamb or pork is the usual fare, not turkey as is the normal custom.
A Christmas sweet called turrón often follows. This is a nougat made from sweetened oasted almonds.
Spanish champagne, called Cava, is usually the preferred drink for the Christmas toast but you can be sure that plenty of fine Spanish wines will also be uncorked for the celebrations!
By contrast, Christmas Day will be a much calmer affair with the family getting over the night before.
Perhaps a visit to a local bar or a stroll through the square might be suggested.
There may be small presents for the children but the main present-giving day doesn’t come until January 6th - Three Kings Day.
On December 28th we have Santos Innocentes (Holy innocents) day. This is much like April Fools Day and many people, organisations and the media play the usual tricks and spoofs to join in the fun.
New Year’s Eve is called Noche Vieja (old night) and is pretty much the same as anywhere in the world with much partying into the early hours of the morning.
As everything starts so late in Spain, people tend to stay in until midnight and then go out to celebrate after the traditional 12 Grapes ceremony.
Basically everyone has 12 grapes ready for midnight and at the stroke of midnight one grape has to be eaten on each chime of the clock. This is supposed to bring you good luck for the coming year.
New Year’s Day is a day of rest and recuperation - and headaches!
This starts on the evening of January 5th with excitement, processions and floats in every town.
The Three Kings and their helpers throw thousands of sweets (caramelos) from their floats to all the children and anyone else who comes out to watch.
Every town will have its own special way of celebrating this event. In some coastal towns the Three Kings may arrive by boat before the procession. Or in the ski centre of Sierra Nevada they even arrive by skiing down into the village.
The Three Kings Day proper is January 6th. This is the most important day of the year for the children, who will wake up to find that the Three Kings (los Reyes Magos) have visited and left them presents in the night.
That’s if they’ve been good, of course!
Throughout the day the Three Kings will carry on the good work and visit children in hospitals and in other less fortunate circumstances.
On January 7th it’s all over. Kids back to school, mum and dad back to work, situation back to normal.
Then it's pay off the credit cards and start saving up for next year...!
Merry Christmas (Feliz Navidad) to you all.
Steve Lean is a writer, photographer and Spanish food nut. He lives in Andalucia, southern Spain and is the webmaster of Proper Spanish Tapas. Here you can find recipes, ingredients and "everything you ever wanted to know about tapas - the small plate with the BIG flavour!"
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