Feliz Navidad: Winter Holiday Traditions in Spain

So I know it seems like the holidays are over, but in Spain the holiday season stretches until January 6th, so I’m not late with this post! Read on to learn more about the interesting holiday traditions around this time of year.

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The Basics

December 24th & 25th: Nochebuena, (Christmas Eve) and Navidad (Christmas Day)

On Christmas Eve, people mainly eat dinner with their immediate family, whereas on Christmas Day people visit their extended families in other villages and children receive presents from Papa Noel (Father Christmas aka Santa). Getting coal if a child is bad is a tradition as well, although it’s not real coal, but candy (what a punishment)!

December 31st & January 1st: Noche Vieja (New Years Eve) and New Years Day

In Spain, people generally stay at home with their family to ring in the New Year, and after midnight go out on the town with their friends.

At home, people follow the hugely popular tradition of eating 12 grapes to count down the last 12 seconds before the New Year. Sitting front of the television every December 31st are millions of Spaniards watching as a news anchor eats the twelve grapes while simultaneously furiously stuffing their cheeks with grapes until they look like chipmunks. One year, the announcer messed up, causing a nationwide scandal that is still remembered. There are strict rules surrounding the eating of the grapes, unless you are a child or old, in which case you’re excempt. But you are now allowed to peel the grapes or take out the seeds – cheating! The grapes must be obtained in advance, because if you wait to the last minute either they’ll all be gone or you’ll be left with the hugest grapes at the store, an undesirable outcome indeed!

January 6th: El Día de los Reyes Magos (3 Wise Men Day)

This is the day the Three Wise Men reached the baby Jesus to give him their infamous presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Here though, they’re called the Reyes Magos, which translates to the Magic Kings, which personally I think is a way cooler name than Three Wise Men (who wouldn’t want to be a king instead of just a wise man?). Spanish children call the Magic Kings by name, which surprised me at first because I definitely never even thought about them having names.

Traditionally, this is the day of the present exchange and only recently have presents begun to be exchanged on Christmas Day.

Seems like a win-win for kids, not only is there a longer school vacation (which starts before Christmas and goes until the 8th of January), but they get presents on two days!

Belenes

Belenes, or Nativity Scenes, are traditional and very popular tradition in Spain. Many students and teachers urged me to go see the Belen of the city at the Town Hall near the Main Square, and some proudly showed me photos on their phones of their own Belens that they had set up in their own homes.

Now while we do have Nativity Scenes in the United States, set up outside churches, or sometimes little ones in people’s homes, Spain takes it to another level completely. The reason they have the name Belen (or Bethlehem), is because it’s not just the scene of Jesus in the manger, but the entire city of Bethlehem on Christmas Day. Sheep being led by shepherds on the outskirts of town, little intricately made houses with balconies, street scenes, and bridges under which real water flows. Of course the centerpiece is the manger scene and the three wise men.

Belen manger scene

I was blown away by the Belen in Madrid. It was so intricate, so carefully put together, one could only imagine how long it took to put together. One of my students showed me a small one in his house that he said took him 6 hours alone! I love models like this of all kinds, whether it be an aerial view of a city or Christmas villages, so I was super excited about this awesome tradition!

FOOD

The best part of any holiday is always the food (I dare someone to disagree with me on this one, and okay you can’t say family), and Spain does this quite well. Europeans in general love their pastries, and Spain is no different, especially around the holidays. I asked my students to give me some examples of traditional Christmastime foods, and I was immediately bombarded with voices from all over the classroom yelling out different foods. And they were all pastries, something I can definitely get on board with.

Here are the main ones:

Turrón

turron

Basically a brick traditionally made of honey and almonds, turrón comes from a town called Jijona turrón in Valencia. Actually it’s an Arabic food, as many of the foods you can find in this region of Spain, since it had (and has) a heavy Arabic influence. I was lucky enough to try some turrón from the town itself (one of the teachers brought it back from a weekend trip there), so I’ve had the most authentic turrón possible, and I can attest that it is pretty delicious! Today turrón comes in many different flavors from coconut to chocolate, but the almond is the original.

Rascón

A giant ring of pastry with fruits dotting the top sometimes filled with custard, my students were very divided on whether they hated or loved it. My personal verdict still remains to be seen, as I haven’t had it yet!

Marzipan

marzipan

This one isn’t just Spanish, as I’ve had marzipan in other European countries before. But it still is a traditional Christmastime treat. I’m not a huge fan of the taste, but they are pretty cute in their little figurine form!

 

So there you have it, some of the holiday traditions in Spain! What are some of your favorite traditions?

 

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