It is often difficult for people who move to Spain to leave behind many of the traditions that they are used to in their home countries, and instead to adopt some new traditions in their host country. For many, the traditions of the Christmas festive period (or Navidades as it is called in Spain) are a major adjustment. It is important to remember that Spain is a Catholic country, and for many Spanish people, the Christmas period is still an important religious holiday that is celebrated regardless of faith.
The first sign of Christmas is usually the Christmas Belén that appear in churches, shopping centres and large department stores. This is the traditional nativity scene that tells the Christmas story through often beautiful, intricate model displays; the best ones will keep children entertained for some time! For more adult entertainment, watch out for the ‘crappers’, which is a popular addition to the nativity scene. This is usually a figure perched behind Mary and Joseph seated in a defecating position. Usually, these figures represent politicians and sporting heroes, popular or otherwise. Many British readers will be proud to recall that the term ‘crapper’ is in memory of the Victorian English inventor, Thomas Crapper, who invented the modern flush toilet. It will come as no surprise to many that the most popular character for the last two years is Donald Trump!
Hot on the heels of the Belén is the Christmas Lottery, which is said to be the biggest of its kind in the world. Spanish people love to gamble, and the event on December 22 is a major event where many shops and businesses will close for a few hours to watch the event on television. If you walk down any shopping street on the morning of December 22nd, you will find that most shops are closed, and any people that are about will be crowded around a television screen or listening to a radio in one of the bars. The prizes are large, and there is said to be a one in seven chance of winning something. Listen out for the monotonous ‘singing’ from children announcing the winning numbers. I can guarantee that this noise will be difficult to get out of your head for at least a day afterwards!
Recognising that 5 January or Dia del Reys is of significant importance to most Spanish people, and in preference to Christmas Day, may take a little getting used to. Although Father Christmas or Santa Claus has become more popular in recent years, Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) is one of the big celebrations, with a big family gathering around a table full of treats and delicacies.
Christmas Day has only become commercially popular for gift giving in recent years. Instead, it remains a religious festival with attendance at midnight mass in church or cathedral, together with a family get together and a large meal.
January 5 is the day that you will see bakeries full of customers, desperate to buy their ‘Roscón de Reyes´, which is a traditional ring-shaped cake, to be enjoyed on January 6th. Be careful when you eat a piece of this, as they contain a ‘surprise’ item that is prone to break teeth and give dentists an even happier and more prosperous New Year. Whoever discovers this ‘gift’ in their slice is crowned King or Queen. The downside, is that there is also a bean hidden in the cake; whoever finds this has to buy the roscón the following year.
January 6th is the traditional day when the Three Kings bring children their presents. In most villages, towns and cities, there will be a procession of the Three Kings, usually complete with camels, and onlookers are showered with sweets, which is when an upside-down umbrella may come in useful! The streets are full of loud music and celebration.
If you love April 1st, which is April Fool’s Day in the UK, you will surely enjoy (or avoid) December 28th (Dia de los Santos Inocentes). This is the day for practical jokes, so be careful!
As in most countries, New Year’s Eve is a big celebration in Spain. This is the event when partygoers are expected to eat 12 grapes quickly and drink a glass of cava at the stroke of midnight. One warning, do please be careful with the pips as there have been many unfortunate chocking incidents over the years. Basically, this ‘tradition’ was designed to clear an excess of grapes grown in Spain before they went off!
Speaking of choking, there are a few other things to get used to, such as turrón, which is a kind of nougat made from almonds, sugar and honey. Turrón is an acquired taste and for some, it can be a very sickly treat and is inclined to stick teeth together, which may come in useful in some circumstances over the Christmas holidays!
Looking back at Christmas past in the UK, it is certainly very different from the orange and nuts in my childhood Christmas stocking. The Christmas ‘crappers’ had yet to be invented, and colourful crackers complete with cheap hats and jokes on the Christmas dining table appear to be non-existent.© Barrie Mahoney ￼