Christmas in Spain

xmas-in-spainThe charm and magnetic draw that Spain has to its visitors is not surprising. The Spaniards are an extremely loving, familial and traditional people with intense passion for everything.

Therefore, it is no wonder that Christmas (Navidad) in Spain is a very magical time of year, the warmth and love of family and friends is readily seen everywhere.

Although Spain is thought of generally for the sun and hot weather, the climate throughout Spain in winter is very cold, so a nice glass of Spanish red wine and a cozy fireplace just add to the general Christmas spirit!

Christmas in Spain is still based on the celebration of the birth of baby Jesus. The presence of Santa Claus (Papa Noel) has only recently arrived and infiltrated the Spanish homes (as little as 7 or 8 years ago).

Spain´s Christmas festivities do not only consist of December 24th and 25th…..the days of fiesta seem to carry on for weeks, one fiesta blending into the other… Christmas, New Years (Año Nuevo) and ending with the Three Kings Days (Dia de los Reyes Magos, eve of the Epiphony) on January 6th.

Each day of fiesta is celebrated with equal fervour and enthusiasm. By mid-January, people are usually exhausted and broke, happy to get back to the daily routine of work and having the kids back at school!

The more common customs of the Christmas season include incredibly elaborate nativity scenes (Nacimiento), Christmas trees, and fantastic Christmas markets scattered among villages and cities with piles of fruits, flowers, marzipan, traditional sweets, candles, decorations and hand-made Christmas gifts.

Gift giving (and buying) is equally popular here in Spain as it is in other parts of the world. In Spain the primary gift giving day is on the eve of January 5th, (Three Kings Day). It is not Santa Claus who comes to the children bearing gifts, but the Three Wise Men.

The Three Wise Men are seen in costume everywhere in Spain at Christmas, visiting hospitals, schools, orphanages, etc. The children go to visit the Three Wise Men to tell them that they were on their best behaviour that year and give the Kings their list of gifts they want.

This is the time of year for family, when family from near and far gather to celebrate Christmas. The most familial Christmas festivity is the 24th – Christmas Eve (Noche Buena), this is the main family feast and celebration.

In the cities, the crowds at the Christmas market thin as shoppers return home to prepare for the coming meal. In small villages, as the Christmas Eve stars appear in the sky, tiny oil lamps or candles are lit, illuminating village windows.

The family feast traditionally features “Pavo Trufado de Navidad” (Christmas turkey with truffles). However, each Spanish region has its own special garnish to compliment the turkey.

Wine is abundant and trays of mantecados (short bread cookies for this time of year) are eaten for dessert. Christmas dinner is never eaten until after midnight. The Christmas Eve gaiety is interrupted at midnight by the ringing of church bells calling the families to “La Misa Del Gallo” (Midnight Mass) which usually the older and more religious family members will attend.

After the meal, family members gather around the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols and Christian hymns. The Christmas Eve celebration will usually continue on well into early morning. For many Christmas Day is spent at church, at feasts and in celebrations with friends and family that may not have been able to make the Noche Buena feast.

The last of the customary holiday celebrations falls on the Eve of Epiphany, January 5th. The legend tells of the Three Wise Men travelling through the country on their way to Bethlehem. To properly receive them, the children fill their shoes with straw on Epiphany Eve and in the secret of the night, the Three Wise Men pass leaving gifts for the following (Epiphany) morning.

Spanish children have a great fondness for the Three Wise Men, especially Balthazar. Children wake up at the crack of dawn, sleepy eyed to run and see what gifts the Kings have left. January 6th, Epiphany is heralded with parades of the Three Wise Men on camels in all cities and villages where candy and cakes are tossed to the crowds of children.

The Spaniards feel strongly about this time of year for many reasons, besides the obvious excitement of giving and receiving gifts and eating great food, it is a special time when busy family members take time out of their busy lives to be together and appreciate and enjoy one anothers company. Family bonds are again renewed. .

Among the Spaniards, the gypsies (gitanos) are even more passionate about the importance of family, customs and celebrating life! Gitanos have an incredibly strong Catholic Faith, so holidays such as Semana Santa (Holy Week – Easter) and Christmas have great importance to their culture, particularly in Andalusia, where there is the largest concentration of Spanish Gypsies.

Unlike most Spaniards, who focus their religious fervour on the Virgin Mary, the gypsies have always identified closely with Jesus, because, like them, he was a wanderer and had to rely on whatever pickings he could find, as he made his way through the world.

A traditional gypsy saying is, “Era como nosotros, nos lo ganamos aqui, y nos lo gastamos alla”, which roughly translates as “He was like us, we earn our money in one place and spend it in the next”.

The fact that Jesus was shunned and persecuted must also strike a note of recognition in the gypsies´ hearts, since they are accustomed to being the unwanted strangers to the many countries through which they have passed on their thousand-year odyssey.

Thus, the Christmas celebration for the gitanos is very significant. All family members gather at the grandparents house early on the 24th. Preparations begin for the traditional Noche Buena meal, “Pota¡e”, which is often eaten mid-day (medio dia). Potaje, similar to a hearty stew, consists of many things including: garbanzo beans, bacalao and potatoes.

The Spanish specialty, Bacalao (a dry salted white fish..cod) is eaten customarily in Spain at this time of year.

The group of family members begin to pass around the wine, sherry, and anis and one by one they gather into a circle of singers, whose voices and hand-clapping echo into the cold night like a burst of electricity.

Their songs celebrate life, family, love and Jesus and Virgin Mary on this special night. The gypsies of Andalusia must be the last people in Europe to make and dance to their own music everytime they have a get-together. This celebration continues through the next day!

On Christmas Day gitano families dressed in their finest suits and dresses go door to door singing songs of “Felicidades”….songs of celebration for Christmas.

As the day comes to an end, family and friends continue to meet and celebrate. The Gitanos also celebrate the Three Kings Day with equal fervour, though Christmas is a more cherished time.

The Spanish traditions are still prevailing over the commercialization of the holidays, the Spaniards are intent on keeping things pure, as in the old days of Spain.

To be here in Spain during the holidays is quite special, there is a unique sentiment and feeling in the air, one that touches everybody.

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