While Christmas in the U.S. will always be my favorite place to be for the holidays, Christmas is Spain is still a special time to explore and celebrate. One thing I especially appreciate about the holiday season in Spain is that they wait until December to decorate. The U.S. starts decorating the second you’re finished stuffing your face with turkey.
So how do Spaniards celebrate Christmas?
Each year, Puerta del Sol always showcases an enormous Christmas tree in the middle of Madrid. This plaza is a great place to meet up with people, and the tree always draws more visitors for photo ops. The streets connecting with Sol are also illuminated with beautifully colored lights. Another common sight you’ll see are street vendors roasting and selling chestnuts. I don’t personally like them, but it finally gives me a visual to The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).
Last year, my family and I enjoyed Madrid’s light tour on top of one of the double-decker buses. The buses take you through Gran Vía and other popular places in Madrid.
This year I got to help decorate Javi’s family tree which like American families, is a popular household tradition. You don’t however, find may houses decorated with Christmas lights.
In addition to a surplus of ham legs, supermarkets all over Spain make room for numerous holiday sweets. One of the most popular is called turrón or turrón de Navidad: a rich nougat originally created by the Moors. Ingredients include honey, sugar, egg yolks, and almonds. They vary in flavor and come in a hard block that’s great for cutting into small squares and sharing at holiday parties.
Working in a school heightens the holiday spirit as the decorations start filling the halls and the students prepare the annual Christmas concert for their parents. In first grade, the teacher I work with had me draw a festive door for the niños to color. They loved contributing and took their coloring very seriously!
One of my coworkers and I ran all over Madrid looking for candy canes so we could share the classic American treat with one of the classes. We almost gave up before finding some at the Taste of America store! They weren’t traditional red and white peppermint, but the kids still gasped with delight when we came through the door.
The Christmas Lottery is an enormously popular tradition in Spain held on December 22nd. The assistants at my school were invited to participate, but I’m not lucky when it comes to drawings and gambling, so I declined. One of the teachers at my school won a six figure prize a number of years ago, so you never know! The most desired prize to win is called el gordo. Maybe I’ll try my luck next year?
Christmas markets also start popping up around Madrid and other Spanish cities. They are filled with candy, chocolate, jewelry, winter wear, handmade crafts, and other festive trinkets. They’re a great way to support local artists and vendors instead of buying everything from El Corte Inglés.
Along with Christmas markets, nativity scenes or belenes fill shop windows and churches. You can buy incredibly intricate figurines of the animals, the Holy Family, shepherds, the Three Kings, and others to add to your own belén each year.
In the States, children are excited for Santa to come and deliver presents on Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) before opening them on Christmas Day (día de Navidad). In Spain, kids wait longer to open presents which are delivered by Los Reyes Magos or The Three Kings on Día de los Reyes or Three Kings’ Day (January 6). This day celebrates the Three Wise Men arriving in Bethlehem.
A traditional sweet in honor of The Three Kings is Roscón de Reyes: a large ring shaped cake filled with a ridiculous amount of whipped cream and topped with nuts, fruit and sugar. This loaded dessert also becomes a treasure hunt. Inside the mountain of cream lies a bean and a coin (or a plastic figurine). If your slice has the bean, then you are obligated to buy the Roscón for next year. However, if you find the coin or the figurine, then you will have good luck all year!
One tradition I have yet to experience are eating 12 grapes on New Years (Nochevieja). Instead of watching the ball drop in Times Square, Spaniards are focused on swallowing 12 seedless grapes during the final broadcasted clock chimes of the year. It’s said to be good luck if you are able to ingest all 12!
Christmas time is my favorite time of year, and I was fortunate enough to travel back to the U.S. to celebrate with family. While it’s fun to experience what Spaniards do for the holidays, I will always prefer Christmas in the States. Despite the commercialism that’s become out of control, Frank Sinatra Christmas carols and sitting by the fire with family will always win.
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