This is the second holiday season I’ve spent in Madrid. What I love about Spain is that the old traditions, such as closing businesses for lunch in the afternoon, are still very much alive. Nowhere is this more evident than during the holiday season. Although things are changing a little, most Spaniards still keep their old traditions, even if they adopt new ones such as having Christmas trees. I thought I would dedicate this blog post to introducing the traditions to those who aren’t familiar with them.
The Belen, also known as a Nativity Scene or Crèche de Nöel, is the most important Christmas decoration. Every home has one. Some are simple, with just the Holy Family. More elaborate ones contain The Three Kings (Los Reyes in Spanish), shepherds and animals and angels. You can buy little houses and even make a small village if you’re so inclined. This is my Belen . . . I bought the Belen itself at El Corte Ingles, and the castle at a small shop in Manzanares el Real– the castle is a replica of the one for which the town is famous.
My goal for next year is to find a beautiful old Belen in one of Madrid’s lovely and plentiful antique shops.
In cities like Valencia, there are giant life-size Belenes outside the Cathedral. The Cathedrals in Spain are filled with elaborate sets that replicate entire villages. The one in Valencia is probably my favorite. This one, in Jerez de los Caballeros, is also very impressive:
These are relatively new to Spain, but Spaniards have embraced them fully. All the shops are filled with Christmas tree ornaments and lights. However to buy the tree itself, one has to know where to look. Many of the nurseries outside the city have them, although you must have a car to to procure one. Lucky for me, last year a friend found a flyer for a place that enabled me to order a tree online! Not only do they deliver them and come pick them up, but they offer ones that are in pots, thus they can be re-planted. Much better for the environment. Still . . . Christmas trees are still very new- having one is actually considered newsworthy. Last year a Spanish TV channel did a story on mine and sent a camera crew to film my tree and interview me as to why I wanted one! I think they chalked it up to me being a crazy foreigner. If only I could find the video on YouTube! Priceless . . .
Christmas markets aren’t big in Spain like they are in Germany, but they do have them. There is one in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor which sells seasonal items such as ornaments, Belenes and mistletoe. Barcelona has the best Christmas markets in Spain. The biggest and best of these is the Fira de Santa Llúcia, located outside the Barcelona Cathedral. My favorite market (where I purchased almost all of my presents this year) is outside the Cathedral in Valencia. It is small but very high quality, with stands from local artisans that sell things such as handmade olive wood products, biodynamic bath products and local delicacies.
What Spain lacks in Christmas markets, it more than makes up for in lights. In even the smallest pueblos, the streets are strung with lights for the holidays. Madrid has the most impressive- particularly around Puerta del Sol. The main thoroughfare in the city, the Paseo de la Castlellana, is illuminated for kilometers with blue lights, reminiscent of the lights that line Paris’s Champs-Élysée. Each individual neighborhood, or even street, has its own color scheme. The trendy Calle Ponzanos has a small but lovely display, as does Las Letras.
This is easily the strangest, and most unusual, Christmas tradition I have seen anywhere in the world. It isn’t seen in Madrid, but is typical in Cataluña. To put it nicely, it is a person taking a pooh! They are usually found in the corner of a Belen- not figuring prominently. The origins are unknown, but they are widely thought to originate in the 1700’s. In theory they are supposed to represent fertility and the hope for a good harvest in the coming year (ie: the pooh acting as fertilizer). In Barcelona they are found in all the Christmas markets and have been taken outside the Belen. In fact this giant one can be seen in a shopping mall.
Alongside the tradition of the Caganer is the equally disturbing Tío de Nadal, or Christmas log. This is a “log” that kids are supposed to take care of and keep warm, in the hopes that they will poop out presents.
Santa Claus, or Papá Noel, is not particularly popular in Spain, although in recent years he does bring Christmas gifts. Traditionally, the day for presents is December 6. In general, Christmas is a more relaxed holiday in Spain. The main day of celebration is Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) where families gather together for a large meal. Almost all of Christmas focuses on food. Months before Christmas, grocery stores and department stores have little pop-up boutiques where you can order Christmas chests for family members, friends and business associates. They range from small boxes to literal chests filled with food, sweets and wine.
Nochevieja (New Year’s Eve)
This is very different than the big party seen in other parts of the world. In Spain, New Year Eve is a family affair. At midnight, the tradition is you must eat 12 grapes in 12 seconds. There is a special TV show that everyone watches which counts the seconds, and you try as hard as you can to keep up. Everyone has their different technique for eating the grapes in the allotted time. Trust me: it’s harder than it seems. I’ve tried a couple different strategies but have not been able to even come close to eating 12 in 12 seconds.
Los Reyes (Epiphany)
This is celebrated on December 6 and is the culmination of the holiday season. It closely follows the original Christmas story. It is the day that three kings from the Middle East came to Bethlehem to visit the Christ child. They are Gaspar, King of Sheba who brought frankincense, Balthazar, King of Tarse and Egypt who brought myrrh, and Melchior, the King of Arabia who brought gold. In keeping with this tradition of gifts, on December 6 kids in Spain receive presents.
There are big parades- the one in Madrid is a grand affair with floats and The Kings throwing gifts and small toys to kids. Before and during Los Reyes, everyone eats a rascón- or King’s Cake. It is a round, circular cake with a whole in the middle (looks like a giant doughnut). There is a coin, bean or small figure (to represent the baby Jesús) baked inside. The person that gets the bean is responsible for baking the cake the next year. Once you experience Los Reyes in Spain, you will immediately see from where many of the Mardi Gras traditions in New Orleans originate.