One of the fascinating things about Christmas is how each country celebrates the same religious holiday in quite different ways and if you’ll be spending yours somewhere like Malaga, you’re in for a real treat.
Unlike the UK, the big days in Spain are Christmas Eve and then there’s another special Christmas/New Year’s celebration to mark Dia de los Reyes on 6 January.
Christmas in Spain gets off to an early start on December 22nd when children from San Ildefonso School announce the numbers of the Lotería de Navidad by song over the radio. Measured by total prize payout, this is the biggest lottery in the world, so it has the country’s attention and heralds the unofficial beginning of the Christmas festivities. Spanish people know how to celebrate, and you might hear “Estoy como unas Pascuas” meaning that they feel full of joy.
December 24th is Christmas Eve (Nochebuena in Spanish), a celebration where families gather around a table loaded with delicacies to dine together. This is a joyful affair, where the sumptuous meal and the high spirits carry on until late at night.
Many also attend the Misa del Gallo, a mass service offered at midnight on the 24th where carols are sung and accompanied by traditional instruments such as the zambomba, the carraca, the tambourine, and guitar. Fish is a traditional Christmas holiday dish so you’ll often see the price of fish rocket at this time of year.
A new holiday tradition has gained popularity in the last few decades inspired by the popular culture of other countries; Santa Claus, known as Papá Noel, brings gifts for children to open on Christmas Eve. On 25 December, while we’re opening our presents in Britain, the plazas in Spain are full of children playing with their new toys in the winter sunshine.
In some parts of Spain, you can find other types of traditional figures such as Olentzero, a coal vender who descends from the Basque mountains to leave gifts for good kids and coal for the bad ones, and Tió de Nadal in Catalonia and Aragon, who deposits gifts and sweets to the homes of children.
Another special day at Christmas time is December 28th, the “Día de los Santos Inocentes”, a day that originally commemorated the victims of biblical Herod’s massacre. The word inocente in Spanish can also mean simple or naïve, and this day in Spain is celebrated in much the same way as April Fool’s Day is in other cultures, so it’s a day to watch out for tricks or “inocentadas” that pranksters are looking to play on the unsuspecting.
While Christmas is a family celebration, New Year’s Eve (Nochevieja) is a time for partying with friends. It is a night for throwing fiestas called “cotillones” in town squares under the clock towers waiting for them to strike twelve. Tradition says locals must wolf down 12 grapes at this time to guarantee good fortune for the coming year. Afterwards, excited revellers offer toasts with glasses of cava. The festive spirit continues until the early morning with January 1st being a day of rest and recovery.
On January 5th, many make their way to their favourite bakeries to order a Roscón de Reyes, a traditional ring shaped cake, in bakeries and cafes everywhere, which doubles as a sweet, somewhat calorie-laden festive breakfast the following day, Dia de los Reyes, which is a big celebration in Spain when the Three Wise Men ride into town, scattering sweets in the streets for local children.