SPANISH CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS
All over the world, the christmas holiday is accompanied by its own local traditions that make it a unique celebration. Spain is no different. Below are 5 unique and interesting Spanish christmas and holiday traditions that may surprise you. Some of these are common throughout Spain, and others only in specific regions (namely Basque Country and Catalonia).
1. El Gordo
Region: all of Spain
Perhaps appropriately named el gordo or ‘the fat one’, the Christmas lottery in Spain is the world’s largest lottery. This year prizes add up to 2.4 billion! This major christmas lottery in Spain and is not just for gamblers. A majority of Spanish people participate. It’s held every year on the 22nd of December (which is today!)
Unlike traditional lottery jackpots, the Spanish christmas lottery has thousands of winners, many with small amount prizes and a grand prize, or el gordo, worth 4 million.
It’s such a popular event that the reading of the winning numbers is nationally televised over a period of several hours. The winning numbers are read aloud by school children. We played last year and didn’t win, but we’ve got our tickets again this year. One ticket will run you about $40. ¡Buena suerte!
2. The Caganer
Shelf of caganers. Photo by Cagacom
The Spanish people enjoy the nativity scene like many other countries, but the people in the Catalonian region of Spain (i.e. Barcelona and surrounding areas) include one extra special figurine in their belén: El caganer. This literally means ‘the shitter’, stemming from the verb ‘cagar‘ meaning, well put in more polite terms, ‘to deficate’.
This little figurine is very common in nativity scenes throughout Catalonia. It typically depicts a peasant in traditional Catalan attire, squatting down to take a dump, with his pants half way down his leg, his bare backside showing, and an actual representation of poop below him.
The practice of placing el caganer in the nativity scene started as far back as the 17th century, and while the original intent is not completely agreed upon, most representations do not attribute the sentiment to vulgarity or blasphemy. One of the most popular theories is it represents the cyclical nature of fertilization, grooming the ground for future growth.
Beyond the traditional representation, modern day caganers often represent popular characters or famous people. You can find them now in hundreds of variations from the smurfs to political candidates and soccer players.
Souvenir stores throughout Barcelona are littered with these guys. Make sure to pick one up for next christmas if you’re there 😉
3. Here comes Santa Clause … or maybe not
Region: Basque Country & Catalonia
On the night of the 24th the children and adults celebrate the holiday with a family christmas dinner (In Spain, you may enjoy this dinner of langostinos (king prawns) rather than turkey or ham). This is also the night that Santa Clause, or papa noel, will arrive with gifts for the children. But in certain parts of Spain, Santa can save his trip, because the people there have their own messenger.
In the Basque country on the northern coast of Spain, instead of Santa coming via sleigh and chimney, the children there look forward to receiving gifts from Olentzero (pronounced o-lan-chair-o) the big burly basque coal miner who travels down from the mountains to bring gifts for the children. He wears a typical basque suit and often brings along a pipe for smoking.
Tio / Tronco de Navidad
In Catalonia, they don’t need Santa or even anyone on two legs, since the children believe the gifts come from a shitting log (yes, I don’t know what it is with the pooping thing in Catalonia). Typically referred to as the tio or tronco de Navidad , and sometimes caga too or ‘shitting uncle’, typically families buy their friendly log in the beginning of December. The children ‘feed’ it candy until Christmas, when it comes time to collect. On christmas eve night, the children sing songs and hit the log with sticks helping to ‘expel’ the presents from the log.
4. When the clock strikes midnight … eat grapes!
Region: all of Spain
While technically not a Spanish christmas tradition, the Spanish New Year’s Eve (known counterintuitively as nochevieja or ‘old night’) is a time to celebrate throughout Spain, as in most other places. But just before the clock strikes midnight, there something you must do. You must be prepared with fruit. Grapes to be exact. And you’ll need exactly 12 of them. In Spain, at each of the 12 seconds proceeding the new year, you must eat one grape. To keep rhythm in many places you will hear the ringing of the bells – once per second for 12 times – and with each ring you’ve got to down a grape.
The most popular spot in Spain for ringing in the new year is the clock tower at Puerta del Sol in the center of Madrid. The bells on top of the old mail building ring out 12 times and everybody in the square eats their grapes!
5. It’s not over until … the 6th of January
Region: all of Spain
Lucky for Spanish kids, there’s no reason to be sad that christmas is over, because there is still the Day of the 3 Kings (el día de reyes) on the 6th of January.
While the holiday is on the 6th, it is the night of the 5th, known as Cabalgatas de Reyes, when everybody comes out to watch the big parade. The 3 Kings ride on colorful floats through the city and throw candy for the children (ok and the adults too). Later in night, the kings will bring gifts for the good children … and coal for the bad.
Also on the night of the 5th, the children leave clean shoes under the tree, hoping the kings will fill them full of gifts. They may also leave a bit of water for the camels or some candy for the Kings.
Then, on the morning of the 6th, the Spanish people celebrate with a breakfast including a Roscón de Reyes, a typical dessert that has a special hidden surprise baked inside. Whoever finds it will have good luck!
We hope you enjoyed learning a little more about Spanish culture. Do you know any other fun Spanish Christmas traditions? Or what about your own traditions? Share with us in the comments.
¡Feliz Navidad y próspero año!