Freelance Spain
Christmas in Spain

Twelve days on non-stop celebrating. Text by Mark Little.

The Three Kings (Mary Eisman)Hours before midnight on New Years Eve, tens of thousands of people gather in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol to await the chimes of the clock on the tower which dominates the Spanish capital’s central square. The excitement builds up as the magic hour approaches. Finally, at the stroke of midnight and the dawn of the new year, everyone will eat twelve grapes, one for each chime.

Tradition has it that eating the twelve grapes guarantees luck for the coming year. Similar ceremonies take place in village and town squares all across the country, and in Spanish homes where families gather to watch the twelve chimes broadcast live from Madrid.
I’d like to tell you that the grape eating ceremony is a ritual whose origins are lost in the mists of time, but in fact it is of quite recent vintage. Early in the twentieth century, according to most versions of the story, freak weather conditions resulted in an unseasonable bumper harvest of grapes. At a loss over what to do about so many grapes at Christmas time, the canny growers came up with the idea of the New Year ritual. The success of the idea is a tribute to Spaniards’ talent not only at celebrating fiestas, but at coming up with new variations on the theme.

If eating grapes on New Years Eve is not a centuries-old custom, the winter festivities are. They’ve been celebrating the season in Spain since... well, since before the birth of Christ. Early Iberians are believed to have marked the winter solstice (the time of year when days start getting longer and the nights shorter) with some sort of fire ritual. The Romans who ruled Spain for five centuries devoted this time of year to their Saturnalia festival, a period of eating, drinking and gift giving. Many of the Christmas pastries to which Spaniards are addicted were originally Sephardic Jewish and Moorish recipes, adding to the multi-cultural heritage of the winter holidays in Spain.

While most people in the English-speaking world think "twelve days of Christmas" is an expression from a song which has something to do with partridges and pear trees, in Spain they actually celebrate all twelve days between Christmas and the Epiphany on January 6th, although the festivities seem to stretch beyond the set boundaries at either end.
The days preceding Christmas are devoted to preparing the Belén, a nativity scene with countless clay figurines representing shepherds and Roman soldiers, shopkeepers and housewives, as well as Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. In some homes, they can be quite elaborate productions, veritable film sets in miniature occupying an entire room.

Food and wine figure prominently in the festivities. The non-stop feasting starts on Christmas Eve (called Nochebuena, the "Good Night"), with a blow-out meal before the family heads out for the Misa del Gallo (Midnight Mass), which is as much as a social occasion as a religious ceremony, an occasion to sing Spain’s popular Christmas carols, Villancicos, which tend to have a livelier rhythm and spicier lyrics than their more solemn Anglo-Saxon counterparts.
There’s more feasting on Christmas Day (Navidad), while the following days are devoted to visiting friends or more distant relatives, which involves, needless to say, more food.
And drinking, too. Christmas pastries will be proffered along with a glass of sweet anise liqueur. The favorite tipple of all at this time of year is Cava, sparkling wine made with the traditional method of Champagne, but using Spanish grape varieties. Spain, in fact, produces and exports more sparkling wine than any other country in the world.

Between Christmas and New Years Eve (Noche Vieja, or the "Old Night") comes another unique Spanish celebration, the Day of the Innocents, marking King Herod’s massacre of infants in Judea. In Spain, this is the equivalent of April Fools Day, much to the bewilderment of foreign visitors, who wonder why the town fountain is suddenly filled with soap suds or why the newspapers carry impossibly wacky stories.

Throughout it all, adult Spaniards will give each other gifts, but the children will have to wait for their presents. Thanks to television and movies Spaniards have adopted many American Christmas traditions, but Santa Claus (here known as Papa Noel) has some serious competition in the Reyes Magos, the three wise men who according to the New Testament bore gifts to the infant Christ. It is the three Magi who bring Spanish children their presents. On January 5th, every child in the country will place a pair of shoes outside the bedroom door and then they will head for the streets to watch the Cabalgata, the parade depicting the arrival of the Reyes Magos, each of the magi ensconced on a brightly decorated float, from which they toss candies to the throngs of eager children. When the children return home, their gifts will be waiting for them.

Copyright © Mark Little. Originally published in Wine from Spain News magazine.

Illustration by Mary Eisman

Related stories:
El Gordo, Spain's Christmas Lottery
'Twas the Night Before Christmas, Spanglish Style
Spanish Fiestas

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Copyright © 2000-2006 Mark and David Little & J.D. Dallet