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Christmas traditions in Spain

It is the middle of November, and while walking through the streets of any Spanish town, chances are the scene will be quite the same as it is most everyday.  Shop windows will display the typical merchandise, and people will come and go following their regular daily routine, just as they always do.  But very soon, changes will begin to happen.  The streets will be beautifully lit, store windows will display all kinds of holiday merchandise and curious and interesting gifts, and friends and family will gather in city centers dressed in thick winter coats, hats and scarves, to combat the chilly December nights.  In Spain, there will be an extra dose of good spirit felt in the streets, and all of this can only mean one thing, that Christmas is just around the corner. 

Spain’s traditions during the Christmas season revolve around many of the same activities as in the rest of the world.  Just like anywhere else, families in Spain gather together to enjoy and celebrate.  Whatever the case the goal is to enjoy a few moments and share in the spirit of giving, kindness, and goodwill.  The elements of this exchange are very similar among all cultures: food, drink, song, dance, the exchanging of gifts, and other acts of generosity.  But in Spain, Christmas is also a very unique holiday, with beautiful traditions and customs that reflect the true character of the Spanish people.

One symbol of Christmas that still maintains much importance throughout Spain is the Nativity scene.  These scenes occupy plazas in cities and small towns throughout the country, and can also be seen in the doorways and entrances of many Spanish homes, as well in storefront windows, and they can be quite elaborate.  In many small towns, during the nights just before Christmas, plazas might even have a live Nativity scene, with actors and actresses playing the parts of Mary and Joseph and the three wise men as well as live animals that are often associated with the birth of Christ, like lambs, sheep, and donkeys.

Also during the days leading up to Christmas, one might hear the voices of children singing in the streets, especially in the villages and small towns of rural Spain, where they still participate in the age old tradition called the "aguinaldo".  Even though not as popular in recent times, in years past one could hear children singing Christmas carols in their neighborhoods, outside the homes of their neighbors or next to a Nativity scene.  In exchange the neighbors typically give the children a piece of candy or a few coins.

December 22, Christmas Lottery Winners are Announced  

On December 22, two important events take place.  Students are released from school for their winter vacations, and perhaps more importantly, they announce the winning number of the famous Christmas Lottery in Spain.  This lottery, by far the biggest in Spain, is a tradition practiced by many people who long to win the grand prize, which would make them instantly rich.  This tradition is deeply embedded in these holidays, dating back to 1763, when Carlos III initiated it. Since then, not one year has passed without it, and it now is the symbolic moment in which Spaniards begin to celebrate the Christmas holidays.

December 24, Christmas Eve 

Christmas Eve in Spain, called “Nochebuena”, just like in many parts of the world, is celebrated with two very important traditions, eating an enormous and decadent meal, and going to Christmas mass.  There is a wide variety of typical foods one might find  on plates across Spain on this night.  Each region has its own distinct specialties.  Among typical dishes served on Christmas Eve and during the days that follow are roast lamb and suckling pig (typically served in the regions of Castilla León, Castilla la Mancha, and Madrid), foul like turkey or duck (commonly prepared in Andalucía), and an enormous variety of seafood, including shrimp, lobster, crab, and various types of fish like hake, trout, sea bream, sea bass, and salmon (common in many regions, but mostly on the costs).  For dessert, there is quite a spread of delicacies, among them are turrón and marzapan, desserts made of honey, egg and almonds that are Arabic in origin, as well as polvorones, a sweet bread kind of like elephant ears, and a variety of nuts and dried fruits.  To drink, one must have a glass of cava, the Spanish equivalent of champagne, although the Spanish say that cava is much better.  After the meal, many Spaniards get their second wind and go to midnight mass, known as “La misa del Gallo”, or “Rooster Mass”, named such because the Rooster  is known as the first to announce the birth of Christ.  

December 25, Christmas Day 

Christmas day is more or less a continuation of what began the day before.  People spend time with their families, they eat another large meal, although not as big as the one the day before, and in many families, children enjoy the gifts that they have received from “Papa Noel”, the Spanish equivalent of Santa Claus.  The custom of giving gifts on this date is not as popular as it is in many countries, as Spaniards traditionally wait until Three King’s Day to exchange gifts. 

December 28, Day of the Innocents 

December 28 marks a day of celebration exclusively Spanish called the Day of the Innocents.  Although the roots of this day are bloody, in modern times, the customs practiced on this day are very jovial and fun.   The anniversary of the murder of many children committed by Herod in Judea, ironically many laughs are had on this day, especially by the natives.  Many foreigners who are in Spain become very confused as absurd or incredible news appears in the papers, municipal governments stage baffling practical jokes on their citizens, and friends and acquaintances cannot be trusted for their word.

December 31, New Year's Eve 

Of course, the celebrations that take place on New Year’s Eve, or Nochevieja, in Spain, are quite an impressive spectacle.  In all plazas of Spanish cities big and small, one can see a similar scene, and it will undoubtedly include church bells and grapes.   When the clock strikes 12, the church bells sound 12 times, and at this moment, all Spaniards eat 12 grapes, one for each toll of the bell.  According to tradition, those who eat the grapes will have 12 months of prosperity in the new year.  Families and friends stay together for this celebration which marks the end of one year and the beginning of a new one, and in the case of most Spaniards this means a lively celebration will be had until the wee hours of the morning.  

January 6, Three King's Day

While most of the world has already begun packing up the Christmas ornaments, throwing out the tree, and finding a place for all of their gifts, Spaniards are continuing the celebration.  January 6, Three King’s Day, is the long awaited day in which the three Kings bring their gifts.  On January 5, children go to a parade where they see the three kings arrive to their city, and take the opportunity to ask them for gifts. Later, before going to bed, children leave their shoes out in a visible spot in the house or on their balcony, y go to bed hoping that when they wake up they will find gifts left by Mechior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.  For breakfast or after lunch, families often have the typical dessert of the day, the “Roscón de los Reyes”, a large ring shaped cake that is decorated with candied fruits, symbolic of the emeralds and rubies that adorned the robes of the three kings.  Somewhere inside the cake there is a surprise, and the person to find it will be crowned King or Queen of the house for the remainder of the day.  


Christmas recipes that come straight from the kitchens of Escuela Internacional staff:


Salted sea bass (halibut or grouper)

Almond Cheese from Extramadura

Rosca de reyes

Christmas Salad




Escuela Internacional Central Registration Office
C/ Talamanca, 10, 28807 Alcala de Henares (Madrid), Spain
Telephone: +34 91 883 12 64, Fax: +34 91 883 13 01
e-mail: info@escuelai.com

Cities in Spain
Salamanca - a walk
Shopping Salamanca
Nightlife - Malaga
Places to go - Alcalá
Excursion - Segovia
Excursion - Siguenza
Trip to Matavenero
Celebrations / Events
Semana Cervantina
Carnival in Spain
April Fair-Sevilla
San Isidro in Madrid
Fiesta del Pilar
Alcalá Film Festival
Christmas in Spain
Spanish Christmas carols
Picasso Museum
Flamenco in Malaga
Cervantes in Alcalá