I have always loved Christmas in Spain. It might not be the commercial extravagance seen in America or the UK but it does last longer and is more about family and friends than the value of the gifts or the lavishness of the decorations.
In Spain, the religious element of Christmas officially starts on December 8th – this is the “Puente” a holiday for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception or Immaculada. A festival celebrated throughout Spain, and each year in front of the beautiful gothic cathedral of Seville with the Los Sieses ceremony which means the “dance of six”. Just to confuse you, it is now performed by ten elaborately costumed boys. The dance is a precise piece and people gather at the Cathedral to watch, while families crowd round the televisions as it is screened across Spain. Those not glued to the TV are content with a wander round the streets to see the Christmas lights and a coffee here or there with friends.
Only in the past few years have the shops and department stores started to open on the Sundays during December to help the Christmas shopping get underway and life from the 8th through to the next marker in the Christmas calendar, the 22nd December, is filled with much the same routine as in any other Christian country. Gift shopping, food shopping planning and decorating the house. However, in Spain we are spared the laborious writing of Christmas cards as they are not that common place and are generally handed to people rather than sent by post. It would be considered very odd to send your auntie a card, and the question would be, “why didn´t you go to see her rather than posting her a card!?”.
The outdoor Christmas markets open around the second week of December offering sweets, nuts, marzipan, candles and hand made decorations and of course, no winter in Spain is complete without the roasted chestnut stalls with their braziers glowing and the paper cones of chestnuts being consumed as people walk around the markets.
In some áreas, namely Granada and Jaen, there are the Hogueras or bonfires to keep you entertained. These fires are an ancient tradition and relate to the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. It is traditional for people to jump the fires as a symbolic protection against illness but no Christmas would be complete without the Belenes or nativities. These can be small shoebox sized, or full scale productions with people dressed up as each character and live animals. Most houses have a Belen and certainly all churches and cathedrals run such an event during Christmas. At home families gather around the Belen to sing while the children dance and especially honoured is the cow, who the Spanish believe breathed its warm breath on the baby Jesus to keep him warm in the stable. Christmas trees are also popular although they tend to go up later around the second half of December.
Christmas is a time of year for a bit of good luck and the buying and giving of lottery tickets is a major industry especially during the Festive season. My hairdresser always give me a ticket for La Lotteria de Navidad but to date, my luck has not held. The main draw is El Gordo or “The Fat One” the draw for which is held on 22 December. It is called a lottery but not in the sense that you can pick your numbers. All the tickets come pre-printed with a number like raffle tickets and many can have the same number in which case all the winners share the prize for that ticket. While that may sound a bit mean, the prize fund tops 3 billion euros and it is common for a whole factory or even a whole village to buy the same numbers and split the winnings. There are three top prizes and thousands of other smaller prizes.
To try to simplify the mechanics of El Gordo, there are 85,000 ticket numbers between 00001 and 85000. Each number is given to 180 series and within those series, each is divided in to 10 decimas. To purchase a decima, you pay 20 euros.
The first prize is 3,000,000 euros per series or 300,000 euros per decima.
Second prize is 1,000,000 euros
3rd prize is 500,000 euros
There are two 4th prizes of 200,000 euros
There are eight 5th prizes of 50,000 euros
And finally 1,774 6th prizes of 1,000 euros
Then there are another 11 lower categories of prize going down to 200 euros
Now, if you have got out the calculator to check I have done my maths correctly, you will be short some 30% of the prize fund. That is because, the government takes 30% of the total fund. Party poopers I say!
The lottery was first held in 1812 to raise funds for the San Idelfonso Orphanage in Madrid. Originally two orphans were chosen to choose and read out the numbers as it was thought that they would be less susceptible to bribes, not having any relatives to influence them. Nowadays, San Idelfonso is a school and the children still announce the lottery, one singing or chanting the winning number and the other answering with the amount won. As the lottery now takes some hours, several shifts of children are used and when a major amount is won, the children have to sing the winning number and amount several times and show the winning wooden balls to a verification committee for confirmation. It is still common for an El Gordo winner to give money to the school. If you ever doubt buying the lottery in Spain is worthwhile, in 2011 the town of Grañen in Huesca won 700,000,000 euros making it the richest town in Spain.
The draw is broadcast live all over Spain via radio and TV. It is impossible to have a coffee in a bar or visit a friend without the rhythmic chant of the children in the background. Many commercial premises set up a radio or TV purely for the draw and you see people huddled around somebody with an iphone waiting to see if their ticket has won. El Gordo is a major part of Spanish life but lotteries are also run by other organisations such as the Cruz Roja but by far the largest and most popular is El Gordo.
Closely following on is Christmas Eve or Nochebuena The Spanish say “esta noche es Nochebuena, y no es noche de dormer” it basically means, this is Christmas Eve and not a night for sleeping! Chistmas Eve is the most important night of the Christmas calendar when families meet to eat and celebrate together. Bars and restaurants generally close and everyone is home from work by mid afternoon. They play games, sing carols, watch TV, sometimes exchange small gifts and generally enjoy themselves. The giving of gifts, or more to the point, the timing for the giving of gifts, has changed in recent years. At one time, gifts were given to the children on Three Kings which is 6 January in memory of the wisemen who brought gifts to Jesus but now some families give the gifts on Christmas Eve, some on Christmas Day and others on Three Kings. This is due to the more modern acceptance of Papa Noel or the Father Christmas version of events. My friends tend to split their gifts so the children get something on Christmas Eve and the balance on Three Kings.
The celebratory meal is eaten in the evening and I have often been asked what Spanish people eat for Christmas. The answer is “not much different to anyone else”. They like prawns, seafood and smoked salmon, some like turkey with stuffing, other like lamb and some choose a large fish shared between all the family. All washed down with some bubbly, a nice wine and of course, some after dinner liqueurs, plus turron and polverones, those little sweets in wrappers seen all over Spain at Christmas. Probably only able to waddle by now, many families make their way to the local church or cathedral for La Misa del Gallo or The Mass of the Rooster. So named, because the Spanish believe that the rooster crowed the night Jesus was born. The service consists of carols accompanied by the traditional seasonal drum the zambomba, tambourines and of course guitars. After the service, people make their way through the streets, sometimes in candle lit procession playing guitars and banging the zambomba, and a generally very happy time is had by all. Some of the Masses are televised and broadcast to the nation and few are in bed before three or four in the morning.
Chrtistmas Day is a day for relaxation and many families go to church or for a walk in the countryside or along the beach, some meet with friends for a drink or coffee, and some visit family. Some take advantage of the swings set up specially for the Spanish custom of “swinging” at Christmas. Before you hit delete thinking we are off down a totally unconnected and potentially offensive route, we do mean swinging on swings. It is an old tradition and many Townhalls put up swings specially for the use of the public. Then everyone heads home for a buffet style lunch and more fun.
Next on the Christmas calendar is 28 December, the Feast of the Holy Innocents when young boys from towns and villages light bonfires and one of them acts as the mayor, ordering the towns people to perform civic chores such as sweeping the streets, tidying up litter, removing graffiti etc. Refusal to comply with instructions results in a fine, the money being chanelled back in to the festivities. This day is not dissimilar to April Fools day and people play jokes on each other and the media carry made up nonsense stories to amuse.
Closely following on Is New Year´s Eve or Nochevieja. Again, the family gather for a meal, chat and laugh, just prior to midnight everyone receives 12 grapes, these must be eaten for luck, one on each strike of the clock heralding the new year. Generally they are washed down by Cava. The young then head off to their parties and festivities and the older family sit around chatting and watching TV.
New Year´s day is a quiet day again spent with family or friends, not surprising, they probably need to recover!
Next on the calendar is 5 January, this day has one reason to exist and that is to provide the public with a chance to go to their favourite bakery or cake shop and buy a Roscon de Reyes. A doughnut shaped cake decorated with crystalised fruits and often eaten for breakfast on the biggest day of the Spanish year - 6 January or Epiphany. This day is all about the children with parades in many of the cities and towns. The main characters in the parades are the Three Kings, or Los Tres Reyes. We have Melchior who has long white hair and a beard, he wears a gold cloak and is the King of Arabia, he brought gold, a gift for a king. Then there is Gaspar. He is easily recognised by his brown hair and beard, he wears a green cloak and gold crown inlaid with green jewels, he represents the King of Sheba who brought Frankincense, a gift for a priest, and finally, there is Balthazar who has black skin, a black beard and wears a purple cloak. He is the King of Trase and Egypt. Balthazar brought Myrrh, a gift for someone who was going to die. The connection being that it was commonly used during the embalming process.
You may well be doubtful about the existence of the Three Kings but Marco Polo claimed in the 1270´s, to have visited Saba in Persia and to have seen the tombs of The Three Kings. Whether they did ever exist, I would not like to venture, but they are an intrinsic part of the Spanish festivites.
Well, that is Chtistmas in Spain. In essence, a time to show your love for your fellow man, spend time with your family and friends and forget about the daily grind of life, which is just what Christmas should be. Merry Christmas!