Christmas is around the corner!! To be honest I’m missing some of the crazy, festive frenzy that happens in the UK at this time of year. Mainly because I’m sat over here in Madrid, with not so much as a mince pie to keep me company (sob).
But I’m happy to spend Christmas in Spain and I will be fully embracing it. Just in case you were wondering what it’s like over here or you’re heading to Spain yourself, here’s my Christmas guide.
Including what goes on in Spain, Spanish traditions, food, decorations, and where to go in Madrid to get a good dose of festive fun.
To say “Merry Christmas” in Spanish you say “Feliz Navidad”
Christmas in Spain
Things are a little different here at Christmas…
To start with, move over Santa it’s all about the Three Kings!
And not much happens on 25th December the main day is 6th January!
Christmas in Spain is a long, extended holiday, the unofficial start is 22nd December, celebrations go on for 2 weeks and everyone is off work!
Christmas traditions in Spain
The Three Kings
The men who took presents to baby Jesus in the nativity story bring the Christmas gifts to children in Spain. Some families also give a small token gift from Father Christmas, known here as “Papa Noel” but the Three Kings are the traditional gift bearers. Unless you’re a naughty child, then you still get threatened with an old lump of coal.
The 3 Spanish Kings are:
Gaspar who has a brown beard and wears a green cloak. He is King of Sheba and carries Frankincense.
Melchoir who has long white hair and wears a gold cloak. He is the King of Arabia and carries Gold.
Balthazar who is black and wears a purple cloak. He is the King of Tarse and Egypt and carries Myrrh.
The Spanish love their Lottery and everyone takes part in the annual “Loteria de Navidad” on 22nd December.
Most families will have a big meal on 24th December and then settle in for the night or go to the local church for Midnight Mass. Christmas Eve referred to as “Nochebuena” meaning Goodnight.
The 25th December is a quiet and relaxed affair in Spain. It’s a day to spend time with the family. It’s common for people to go for a walk or visit a local bar.
Day of the Innocent
On 28th December people play funny tricks on each other like Aprils fool’s day in the UK and USA. TV and newspapers join in running silly joke stories.
New Years Eve
New Year’s Eve, 31st December, is called “Nochevieja” in Spain or The Old Night. It’s a tradition to eat 12 grapes at midnight. It’s said that each grape represents a month of the coming year, so if you manage to eat all the grapes (one on each bell ring) you will have a lucky year. If you want to be really lucky in the coming year you wear red underwear!
Day of the Kings
The Kings are held up high in the eyes of Spanish people and as well as receiving gifts, 6th January is a special “Fiesta de los tres Magas” or “Dia de los Reyes”. On the eve of the Epiphany, 5th January, most big towns have a parade for the Kings. A procession of floats that goes through town with men dressed up as the 3 Kings, throwing out sweets, re-enacting their search for Bethlehem. That evening children will lay out Whiskey, satsumas and nuts for the Kings and maybe a bucket of water for their camels. Then eagerly await the arrival of their presents.
In some regions of Spain there are a few other local traditions and Christmas characters. Such as the Basque region having Olentzero, a jolly farmer who brings the children’s gifts. Or in Catalonia they feed and warm the “Tio Nadal” a little log with a smiling face, who in return gives them sweets and treats. Catalonians also put the “Caganer”, a bare bummed, pooing figurine in their nativity scene (usually hiding at the back to keep his modesty) to bring good luck.
Christmas food in Spain
Seafood is often eaten on Christmas eve particularly in coastal areas and the Spanish Islands. Typically, lobster, prawns, fish stew or soup.
Roast lamb or suckling pig are all popular choices for Christmas eve or Christmas day dinner. With sides of tapas and lots of ham, cheese and pate.
Turron is the Christmas treat everyone in Spain has. It’s a sweet, chewy, type of nougat traditionally made from egg whites, almonds and honey. You can get lots of different fillings and flavours now like chocolate truffle, praline or whiskey.
Marzipan is also a popular sweet and is molded into shapes and little characters or animals.
Polvornes is a biscuit made from almonds, flour, sugar, lard and cinnamon a bit like shortbread which is only really eaten around Christmas.
Roscon is a sponge cake ring, filled with cream and topped with candied fruit, sliced nuts and sugar which is eaten on Kings Day.
Dates, dried fruits and nuts are eaten as snacks and lots of red wine and cava is drunk.
Christmas decorations in Spain
The nativity scene or “Belen” is the chosen decoration for any traditional Spanish household. Intricate figurines will be carefully arranged and the display will take pride of place as the Christmas centre piece. Most churches will have large or even life size nativity display that are open for people to view at certain times. But it isn’t always taken seriously, non-traditionalists will use any figurines to re-create the nativity. I’m talking a Lego baby Jesus, Princess Leia as Mary, Homer Simpson as Joseph and Snoopy as the donkey!
Christmas trees are common in homes in Spain but most likely put up mid December, complete with colourful festive hanging decorations and fairy lights. Feliz Navidad signs, fairy lights, tinsel and anything bright or shiny is put up to decorate the windows and balconies of most properties over Christmas.
Neon overhead lights are put up on the main streets of most Spanish towns and almost all will have a tall, bright neon tree. The bigger cities in Spain seem to be in a bit of competition over who can do the most impressive Christmas light display.
Where to get into the Christmas spirit in Madrid
Christmas Markets – Plaza Mayor holds a big Christmas Market with stalls selling decorations, trinkets and gifts. The whole square is alight with bright, colourful, decorations. There are also smaller, artisan markets at Plaza de Espana and Opera.
Big Christmas tree – Tall neon tree’s are erected at some of Madrid’s most famous squares including Puerta del Sol, Plaza de Espana, Plaza de Callao.
Street lights – Madrid’s most impressive street light display’s are on Gran Via, Puerta de Alcala, Calle Mayor, Calle Preciados.
Ice skating – Ice rinks are set up at Plaza de la Luna (from 1st Dec) and Plaza de Cibeles (from 21st Dec).
Puppets and storytelling for Children – Cultural centres at Conde Duque and Centro Centro hold activities for children to join in with.
Christmas bus – Hop on El bus de la Navidad to see the main sights of Madrid and all the decorations. It starts and ends at Plaza de Colon.
Corte Ingles display – This iconic Spanish department store puts on a festive digital display every year. Go to Paseo de la Castellana to watch it.
Feliz Navidad! and have fun 🙂
You might be interested in these other Madrid posts…
Thinking of spending some time in Spain? You might find these posts useful…