By Patricia Anido
Christmas season in Spain starts a little later than in the rest of Europe. The last week of November or the first of December, in any case, it is traditional to complain about the decorations coming “too early”. Since most of us live in apartments, outside decorations aren’t very popular, and only the city hall puts decorations outside. Complaining about the waste of light and the lights being “uglier every year” is also traditional and pretty much mandatory for everyone.
Christmas markets are very popular too, Madrid has over a dozen only in the city entre, one of them only for sweets, and hundreds of tiny markets and pop-up stores with handmade good from artisans and artists. The city attracts more than 600.000 visitors from outside Madrid that come to see the Christmas lights and the markets, plus the 6.5 million that live in the city and the surrounding cities makes downtown Madrid dangerously crowded, at some point, many evenings, the police closes the entrance to the center and the subway stops until the crowd fades away . For my family the tradition was to go there and watch “Cortylandia”,a puppets show that a mall puts together every year in one of its wall, after that we would go to the central market to buy some sort of ridiculous hat or wig (and wear it the rest of the evening), one new figure for the Bethlehem and things to make pranks the 28th (see below).
Inside the homes tiny Christmas trees with many colorful decoration acquired during the years will adorn a corner of the living room, but the center piece of a Spanish home Christmas decoration is the Bethlehem. The tradition is to put it together some time during the first week of December or at the end of November, and every day the Three Wise Men would be put a little closer to the Mary and Joseph (as if they were actually going there) and on the 24th the little baby Jesus figure must be put on its crib.
Bethlehem decorations are a big deal for everyone, the size can vary from a little 4 figure decoration to a several square meters one, and it tends to get a little bigger every year, the figures are pass upon generations and cared for as a little treasure. City halls and malls compete too to have the biggest a best Bethlehem around to attract visitors. Some places even host “Living Bethlehems” that are exactly what they sound, people pretending to be in Bethlehem and then being surprised when Jesus is born.
Christmas eve dinner and lunch on Christmas day varies a lot from region to region, since both of my parents are from the North of Spain, our Christmas dinner is mostly made out of seafood, shellfish and fish, and maybe some lamb. Around a dozen appetizers, four or five main dishes and three or four desserts compound both meals, for Northerners in Spain, food is both a religion and an endurance sport. Although the tradition is to receive the presents from the Three Wise men, Tió de Nadal (Christmas Log) for Catalonians or the Olentzero for Basks, many children receive gifts from Santa Claus too. For me, being from an International family meant that I received gifts the 25th and the 6th of January. I was told growing up that Santa Klaus, the Three Wise Men and other entities like the Olentzero or Tió Nadal were all part of a team, and they distributed the work load amongst them, taking into account where the kids lived and their cultural heritage.
28th of December, that’s the day we have some fun. For some reason Spaniards decided that the right way to commemorate when Herod killed all the babies in Bethlehem is to make pranks to each other. But it has some sort of explanation, in the Catholic calendar it’s the day
of the Saint Innocents, innocent and naïve is the same word in Spanish, so we do a little prank to Granma that day and go: “naïve!, naïve!, naïve!”
On New Year’s Eve, the dinner will follow the style of the Christmas dinner, although grapes for dessert is mandatory for the entire country. During the 12 bell gongs, everyone must eat 12 gapes and ask for 12 wishes, while watching the clock of Sol’s square in the center of Madrid, also the center of Spain and the beginning of all the roads in the country. Right after that a toast with a glass of Champagne or Cava, containing a piece of gold inside, all of this wearing red underwear and gala dresses, and then with no time to recover, one must hug and kiss everyone in the room while loudly saying “¡feliz año nuevo!”. So yes, the first minute of every year, for every Spaniard, is a struggle not to choke and die.
Christmas ends the 6th of January, when the Three Wise Men or Biblical Magi come all the way from the Middle East in their camels to give presents to the kids. On the 5th night, in every single town in Spain there is a parade where the arrival or Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar is celebrated. Spaniards also paint their faces black to represent Balthasar and his helpers, if there is no black person volunteering for that. After that the family goes to take warm chocolate and roscón de reyes, and specific sweet for this day. The roscón comes with a bean and a little figurine inside. Whoever gets the bean pays for all, and whoever gets the figurine is crowned king. After that everyone goes home and cleans their shoes, placing them somewhere visible, so the Three Wise Man know who lives there and where to put the presents. After leaving roscón and wine for the kings, and water for the camels, the kids go to sleep and the parents eat more roscón, and wine, and throw the water away