by Michael Todd
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that Christmas has always been not only one of my favorite holidays, but also one of the most memorable holidays we celebrate in the States. People string lights, hang stockings, and set presents under ornamented Christmas trees, of course. But the overall environment of the season is, depending on where you are, so much more than that.
It can be brisk winter air, the scent of cookies and pies baking, candles on the dining room table with the lights dimmed, all while A Charlie Brown Christmas plays on the TV. Maybe it’s unfinished Monopoly games, ice skating on a frozen lake, Christmas markets, and hot chocolate. Maybe there are traditions like opening one present on Christmas Eve. Perhaps you grew up with the advent calendar and little chocolates counting down the days to Christmas. Almost every child leaves cookies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Listening for reindeer hooves on your roof are memories that countless people share. Maybe there are family traditions that don’t exactly fit the stereotype, like naughty Secret Santa gifts or taking a new family photo with Santa at the mall every year even when you and your siblings are in your 20’s.
But have you ever thought about how other countries celebrate the Christmas holiday? Have you ever wondered about both the differences, and the similarities? The Christmas season is a big deal here in Spain, just like in the United States. In fact, given that Spain obviously doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas begins just after Halloween and lasts until early January!
Christmas Traditions Abroad
For many in Madrid, the official holiday season begins on December 22nd. It goes all the way to January 6th, a Christian celebration known as Epiphany. Thanks to globalization and popular culture, Spain celebrate several of the same traditions as in the States. Take Christmas lights, for example.
There are, however, some key differences. For example, December 22nd is El Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad, also called El Gordo de Navidad. This is one of the most popular loterías, or lotteries, in all of Spain. There are five large or important prizes, including a monetary prize of 400 million euros, and then several additional smaller prizes, such as cash prizes of €1000.
Many families have adopted the tradition of putting up Christmas trees. Nativity scenes, called belén, are highly popular in this traditionally Catholic country. A huge Christmas Market called El Mercado de Navidad takes over Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, perhaps most easily translated as their main square. It’s a tradition that, in the event that you accidentally break a figurine from your belén, you pick up the replacement from this market.
Santa Claus and Christmas Day in Spain
There are also many places in Spain which have adopted the story of Santa Claus, also known as Papa Noel. Other places in Spain have their own versions of jolly Ol’ St. Nick. For example, the Basque Country has the legend of Olentzero, a man who comes down from the mountains on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to good children.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day themselves find themselves as fairly relaxed occasions. Children rise at the crack of dawn to open their presents. Families and friends dine together, sing carols, and exchange gifts. Given that the country is a peninsula, seafood is a popular Christmas food all around Spain, even in areas that aren’t coastal. These can include things like gambas a la plancha, a shrimp, or some type of seafood soup. Fish like lubina (bass) or dorada (gilt-head bream) are also very common Christmas meals. A bigger second course like cordero (lamb). Other typical foods include embutidos, or dried, cured ham. Another popular Christmas or seasonal food is called turrón, which is a sort of nougat-meets-fudge-type sweet made with honey, sugar, egg white, and typically some kind of nuts like peanuts or almonds.
The Twelve Days of Epiphany
Another important and diverse element of Madrid’s Christmas celebration follows Christmas Day itself. It carries over into the New Year and is known as the twelve days of Epiphany. Epiphany ends on January 6th. This holiday showcases and celebrates three Christmas characters that North America’s Christmas holiday tales mostly skim over: the Three Wise Men, also known as the Three Kings, or in Spain, Los Tres Reyes Magos — the Three Magician Kings!
The Celebration of Epiphany
As the story goes, these three kings — Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar — came bearing gifts after Jesus’ birth. And while these three kings get just a little bit of airtime in Christmas sermons at church or as figures in nativity scenes, Spain has gone the extra mile and given them a full parade, called a cabalgata, on January 5th. There are several cabalgatas across all of Spain in major cities and bigger towns. Madrid’s cabalgata alone typically draws over 100,000 people. The cabalgata, like any other parade, features extravagant floats, candy-throwers, and in Madrid, a children’s choir. People even bring umbrellas to shield themselves from all the sweets thrown into the crowd.
Similar to Santa Claus, the Three Kings bring presents to children on January 6th, the end of Epiphany. Some churches celebrate it as the day of Jesus’s baptism. And just as children and families hang stockings and set out cookies and milk for Santa, Spanish children will sometimes leave shoes outside their doors or under the trees for the Three Kings to fill with smaller gifts in addition to the larger ones left under the tree. They also leave out, in place of milk, cookies, and carrots, biscuits and water for the Three Kings’ camels! And on the morning of Epiphany, Spaniards typically eat a breakfast of a special treat called el roscón de reyes, which is a circular and decorative pastry.
In recent years, the Three Kings have also been the subject of a bit of controversy. Given that the kings were traditionally played by Spanish councillors, the country has a history of using black-face during this festival, both for the black king Balthazar and also for his gift-bearing page boys. With a less explicit history of racism in the country, many Spaniards, particularly traditionalists and those of the older generation, still don’t fully understand why this is seen by other countries or cultures as problematic. However, in recent years, some areas in Spain have hired black actors to play the part instead.
Celebrating Christmas in another country is a wonderful time to experience other traditions first-hand. For your next holiday, come check out Christmas in Madrid. The holiday is one of the biggest celebrations of the year, and the cabalgata is one celebration you wouldn’t want to miss.