I have been looking forward to experiencing the holiday season in Spain since we arrived. At one point Phil asked if I wanted to travel somewhere for Christmas. I did not. There is something very interesting to me about experiencing Christmas traditions in another country, particularly in one as Catholic as Spain. In a country where the Assumption of Mary is a national holiday, I figure they really go all out for Christmas…and they do.
My anticipation has been building since the Christmas streetlights were hung at the end of October. I was hoping they would light them at the first of November. In a country that loves Christmas and doesn’t have Thanksgiving, I thought maybe we would get two solid months of Christmasing! That was not the case. The lights hung, dark, in the streets for a little over a month. I am not someone who usually enjoys Christmas coming early but this year, I could hardly wait. On December 3rd, they were finally illuminated! Phil and I and our friend Utkarsh watched the lighting of one of the many Christmas trees around town, near the paseo maritimo.
Gijón puts out a booklet guide for the holidays of the various seasonal happenings in the city. Included are; an ice skating rink and a big hill (that looks a bit like a water slide) covered in man-made snow, both erected just for the season! They also have little Christmas markets with artisanal goods, Christmas music concerts, and a bus tour of the city lights, to name a few.
The unofficial beginning of Christmas in Spain is December 22nd with the drawing of the National Sorteo de Navidad (Christmas lottery). As in the U.S., one can play the lottery in Spain at any time of year but the Christmas lottery is special. Folks who do not play the lottery regularly will often buy a chance at the Christmas lottery, for themselves or as a gift for someone. You can even buy a partial chance at winning. One ticket is 20€ but you can purchase 1/4 of a ticket if you’d prefer. Unlike the regularly lottery, you can buy a chance at the Christmas lottery almost anywhere: cafe, bar, restaurants, bread and fruit shops, even clothing stores. In fact, we saw signs indicating various business sold the Christmas lottery way before the Christmas lights were hung in the streets.
The official beginning to the holiday celebrations is December 24th, called Nochebuena. According to locals we’ve talked with, Nochebuena is actually a bigger celebration than Dia de Navidad (Christmas Day). Nochebuena is the night that family gathers together for a copious dinner full of meats, wines, and foods not regularly eaten during the rest of the year, with an assortment of deserts as well.
Perhaps the most well known sweet in Spain during Christmas time is turrón. Turrón is a nougat confection, typically made of honey, sugar, and egg white, with toasted almonds or other nuts, and usually shaped into a rectangular tablet. The two traditional types of turrón are turrón blando (soft) and turrón duro (hard). Turrón blando has a consistency similar to fudge and the flavor similar (in my opinion) to a Bit-O-Honey candy in the U.S. Turrón duro is hard and with a flavor and consistency similar to that of peanut brittle, or almond brittle, as the case may be. In addition to these traditional types of turrón, there are many other types incorporating chocolate, cream, and other kinds of nuts. I tried one that was very similar to a walnut maple fudge. In fact, there are so many brands and types of turrón, the grocery store near our apartment rearranged their liquor department to accommodate two large, full tables of of the sweet stuff.
Another very popular, seasonal sweet treat is polvorón . Polvorónes are very crumbly Spanish shortbread made of flour, sugar, lard, milk, and almonds.They are my favorite Christmas tradition so far. Polvo is the Spanish word for dust so polvorón seems a very appropriate name for the crumbly delights. They taste very much like powdered donuts. In fact, I sent some to my parents and my mom texted me to thank me and to tell me she thought polvorón taste like powdered donuts. They also come in different flavors such as chocolate and lemon. Just plain almond is my favorite.
On Christmas Day many children open gifts from Papá Noel. Santa Claus, or Papá Noel, has not always been a Christmas tradition in Spain but has become more popular over the years. Traditionally, presents are instead delivered to children on the 6th of January by the Tres Reyes Magos, or the Three Wise Men. Nowadays, many children receive Christmas presents on both Christmas Day and 6th January, which is the Feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. I think the tradition of the Tres Reyes Magos bringing gifts to children actually makes much more sense in keeping with the Christian Christmas story; the Three Wise Men visiting the newly born baby Jesus, bearing gifts. Outside of many windows we’ve seen small ladders, depicting the three wise men climbing into the house to bring gifts.
On December 28th, Spain celebrates el dia de los Santos Inocentes. This has become a day similar to April Fool’s Day in the U.S. as people play jokes or pranks on each other. There is a tradition of putting paper cut-outs on others’ backs. Also common on that day for newspapers and TV stations to print or broadcast “news” stories based in humor rather than fact; our teacher compared it to Orson Wells’ alien invasion broadcast many, many years ago.
On Nochevieja (New Years Eve) friends gather to celebrate the end of the year. There is a Spanish tradition, “las 12 uvas de la suerte” (the 12 grapes of luck), during which people gather in the plaza mayor (town square) or in their homes and in the last 12 seconds before the clock strikes midnight, one eats a grape for each second of the countdown, followed by drinking cava (Spanish sparkling wine). Each grape represents a month of the year and for every grape you manage to eat, it’s said you will have a month of good luck. It sounds like a major choking hazard to me but I suppose luck is on your side.
After midnight, people dance and drink and celebrate El Año Nuevo until dawn. On the way home, it is customary to stop and buy chocolate con churros para llavar (to go) and take them home and eat them in bed.
On January 5th, cities and towns have big parades and street celebrations featuring los Tres Ryes Magos. Excited children wave to the wise men as they await their gift deliveries. January 6th, Three Kings Day, is the last official day of the holiday season in Spain.
Many folks have asked what Phil and I will be doing for the holidays this year. Well, we are lucky enough to have been asked to join our friend Diana and her family at the home of her mother for Nochebuena. We feel honored to have been asked and we are excited to experience a true Spanish Christmas. Diana and her daughter, Diana, joined us for a Thanksgiving meal we had at our apartment this year. We enjoyed sharing a bit of our traditions with them. Diana even brought a turrón cake which as amazing; soft and fluffy like a mousse crossed with cheesecake and a cookie crust.
For New Years Even, we will be traveling to Mallorca, the largest of the Baleaeleric Islands located 200km off the Spanish mainland. I feel pretty confident in my ability to eat 12 grapes but much less so in my ability to stay up dancing until dawn. I am all about eating churros con chocolate in bed, regardless of date or occasion.
I hope you all have a safe and happy holiday season!