Updated November 2018
Christmas in Spain is lots of fun, it’s different to Christmas in the UK and to be honest I do miss some of the crazy, festive frenzy. But I’m happy to spend another Christmas in Spain (my third now) and I will be fully embracing the local traditions while seeking out a few home comforts.
If 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 enjoy the festive spirit.
Christmas in Spain
To say “Merry Christmas” in Spanish you say “Feliz Navidad”
And while many Christmas traditions are universal nowadays there are a few things that 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 or groups of friends will have a big meal together late in the evening on 24th December and then settle in for the night, have a drink or two, sing carols or go to the local church for Midnight Mass. Christmas Eve is referred to as “Nochebuena” meaning Goodnight. It’s quite a formal affair and people tend to get dressed up.
The 25th December is quiet and relaxed 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. Eat leftovers from last nights feast, open a few presents and have a few drinks.
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.
Always happy to get the party started, Spaniards like to start the New Year celebrations early and the local plazas are full of people have drinks and snacks on 30th December.
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!
People will flock to the main plaza where the big Christmas tree was erected and await the midnight count down. Expect big crowds of people wearing as many layers as possible plus a colourful wig or fancy dress and well prepared with food and drinks brought from home. Bars and restaurants tend to close early on NYE so that everyone can join in so unless you pre-booked tickets at a fancy dinner or a nightclub tonight is not really the night to go out partying.
This is a day to chill out, watch movies or maybe head out locally for lunch.
On the eve of the Epiphany, 5th January, cities and big towns have a parade for the Three Kings. A procession of floats that goes through town with men dressed up as the Kings, throwing out sweets, re-enacting their search for Bethlehem. That night before bed, children will lay out whiskey or cider, satsumas, sweets or nuts for the Kings and maybe a bucket of water for their camels. Then eagerly await the arrival of their presents which traditionally are left in and around the kids shoes.
In Madrid the parade usually starts around 18:30 and goes from Nuevos Ministerios to Plaza de Cibeles.
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”. It’s the last day of celebrations when children play with their toys, lots of sweets and cakes are eaten and everyone relaxes before going back to school and work.
Other regional traditions
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 or soft, 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.
Satsumas and clementine’s are harvested in Spain during wintertime and are a staple at Christmas.
Dates, dried fruits and nuts are eaten as snacks.
Red wine, cider and cava are the typical drinks.
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 find 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 selling gifts at Plaza de Espana and Opera.
Many local churches and charities also hold small fairs or bazaars in the weeks before Christmas. Here’s a great a list of what’s going on by Kids in Madrid.
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 get 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.
Where to find UK treats for Christmas in Madrid
If you are an expat from the UK looking for some home comforts in Madrid here’s where I usually find my treats…
- Celebrations – Small boxes can be found in Dealz
- Roses – Varying sizes and prices in Sabores del Mundo
- Ferrero Rocher – You can find big boxes in Dia or Lidl and Mercadona do an own brand version
- Dry roasted peanuts – In Dealz or SuperCor
- Mince pies – They will sell out fast but can be found in Dealz, Carrefor, Sabores del Mundo or the food court of Corte Ingles
- After Eights – They stock these in Dealz all year round
- Christmas pudding – Corte Ingles or Sabores del Mundo
- Baileys – You can get a bottle of the real stuff in Corte Ingles or they do an own brand version in Lidl
Feliz Navidad! and have fun 🙂
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