Christmas in Spain has a few peculiarities that I’m going to discuss in just a minute. To summarize what I will discuss in this article, first I will talk about the Spanish Christmas traditions, then how to celebrate Christmas like a Spaniard would, and finally advice on where to go during the holiday season for those who plan a trip to Spain during winter.
Spanish Christmas traditions
Beléns (nativity scene)
Beléns, aka nativity scenes, are still a pretty big thing of Christmas in Spain. In many Spanish homes families elaborate nativity scenes with a stable and figurines of infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph, a donkey, an ox and frequently more elements. Some are more complex than others, and there are even competitions to see who has build the most spectacular belén. But nativity scenes don’t stop there. You can find them in town squares too, and there are towns renowned for their living nativity scenes, with real humans, animals and buildings to represent the birth of Jesus. As a side note, in nativity scenes of Catalonia you will also find a caganer, a figurine depicting someone defecating (caganer literally means the shitter).
El Gordo / Spanish Christmas lottery
El Gordo, aka the Spanish Christmas lottery, is a tradition that dates back to 1812. It all started because the Cortes of Cádiz needed more sources to finance the war effort against Napoleonic France and liberate Spain. The Spanish Christmas lottery has been held ever since then, even during the Spanish Civil War! Imagine how deeply rooted the tradition to buy El Gordo is. The extraordinary draw takes place every December 22 and it’s the biggest lottery draw worldwide. The ads of the Spanish Christmas lottery are also among the best every year!
Tió de Nadal / Caga tió
The Tió de Nadal (in English, Christmas log) is a log that poops gifts. Yeah, you read it correctly. This is a tradition of Catalonia (what’s up with Catalonia and defeacting?), that also exists in some regions of Aragon and Occitania, and it typically consists in a smiling trunk with two legs and a barretina (traditional Catalan hat). Every night since the Feast of the Immaculate Conception children give them something to “eat” (oh, children innocence…) and covers the Tió de Nadal with a blanket because, you know, it’s winter and the smiling log needs to be warm to shit gifts. Then on Christmas Eve the kids hit the Tió de Nadal with a stick (poor guy!), sing Christian or special caga tió songs in a different room, and then they go back and magically kids find gifts under the blanket.
Nochebuena / Christmas Eve
Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve, is generally a family affair. Members of the close and extended family gather together and celebrate a feast with meat, lobster, soup, wine and traditional desserts like turrón, marizpan and polvorón. The Christmas dinner is the biggest meal of the year, so you need to make sure that your stomach is empty before attending the dinner. Something that is not exclusive of Christmas in Spain, but rather is a very Spanish thing, is the sobremesa. Sobremesa is the time of relaxing and talking at the table after you have all eaten, for an hour or even more! On Christmas Eve and New Years’ Eve it’s not weird for a sobremesa to last for three hours or more, not kidding!
After Christmas dinner, many Catholic Spaniards go to the Misa de Gallo, a special mass celebrated around the midnight of Christmas Eve. During Christmas in Spain you can find people singing villancicos (the Spansih Christmas carols), playing the guitar and beating hand drums and tambourines in the streets.
Of course, Christmas Eve is like other Western countries and Papá Noel (Santa Claus) brings gifts to all the childrens who have beheaved properly during the year. In Basque Country, the charcoal bruner and fat Olentzero is traditionally the one in charge of that task.
However, it’s important to mention that following the big meal of Christmas dinner there is yet another one on Christmas Day, this time with just the close family and just a little less food than the previous day. You may want to celebrate Christmas and say Feliz Navidad to everyone with this Feliz Navidad Sweatshirt of the store.
Holy Innocents Day
Christmas in Spain still has some important dates. On December 28 we celebrate the Día de los Santos Inocentes or Holy Innocents Day, the Spanish equivalent of the American and English April Fool’s Day. People play pranks on each other and there are more fake news than usual that day (this time for fun).
Nochevieja / New Years’ Eve
Nochevieja aka New Years’ Eve is celebrated with either the close family or friends. What makes Spain different this day is that we have the 12 lucky grapes tradition of eating twelve grapes to the sound of the twelve strokes of midnight. According to this superstition, if you manage to eat the 12 grapes at midnight you will be lucky in the new year. In the Puerta del Sol of Madrid it’s a pretty big event, you may want to check this Madrid travel guide!
Cavalcade of Magi and Reyes Magos / Three Kings Day
Christmas in Spain wouldn’t be complete if we skipped the Cavalcade of Magi and the Three Kings Day (Epiphany). Traditionally, Santa Claus wasn’t a thing in Spain. Instead of Santa Claus, the Reyes Magos have the responsibility to bring gifts to children of all over Spain on January 6. The bad thing about this is that kids receive their Christmas presents right before they have to go back to school, no wonder why Santa Claus is becoming more people although most people still celebrate both.
The night of January 5 is pretty special in every town of Spain, because we celebrate the Cavalcade of Magi (in Spanish Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos) with large floats parading through the streets and throwing sweets out for the children. On January 6 apart from receiving gifts people usually eat the Roscón de Reyes (or Tortell in Catalonia) that is an oval-shaped cake. The cake has one figurine of one of the Wise Men and one bean. If you are unlucky and find the bean, you will have to pay the roscón.
How to celebrate Christmas like a Spaniard
- Go to a living nativity scene. The most acclaimed ones can be found in Buitrago de Lozoya (Madrid), Arcos de la Frontera (Cádiz), Báscara (Girona) and Sangüesa (Navarra).
- Buy one ticket of El Gordo.
- Learn some villancicos and prepare yourself for a big family meal on Christmas Eve. What’s really important is to be open to a long sobremesa talk. I know that some foreigners are used to leave the table the moment they finish to eat, but it’s a good experience to chat and relax with some alcohol drink.
- Prank your foreign friends. They won’t probably understand why you do that on December 28 if they are not living in Spain, take advantage of that and make fun of them!
- Eat the 12 grapes on New Years’ Eve. It can be hard, but you don’t want to attract bad luck, do you?
- Attend a Cavalcade of Magi, celebrate the Three Kings Day and buy a Roscón de Reyes.
If you are planning a trip to Spain to celebrate Christmas in Spain, I recommend you to visit the Store of this website! There are travel guides, history books and many more stuff related to Spain and Spanish culture.
Where to go in Spain for Christmas season
Due to different traditions or climate, your chosen region to spent your holiday season in Spain could vary. If you are from northern Europe or a cold place, you may prefer to experience a warm winter. If that’s the case, the Costa del Sol of Andalusia or the Canary Islands are the best, with average temperatures of 15ºC and 20ºC respectively.
By contrast, if you want to spend a white Christmas in Spain, you should plan a trip to the Aragonese or Catalan Pyrenees or Sierra Nevada (in Granada, Andalusia). where you will find fantastic ski resorts! The coldest capitals of Spain are Burgos, Ávila and Soria, all in Castile and León, however that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will find them snow-covered.
If neither of these two options convince you, you can always go to the largest cities of Spain like Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia or Seville. In these cities you will find plenty of parties and events to have a busy Christmas holidays! The Christmas lights of Vigo in Galicia are very impressive too!
Check out the store of the website to find fantastic Spain travel guides!