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Christmas in Spain


Christmas has never been something really big in my family.

For most Spanish families Christmas is a very special time of the year that involves lots of shopping, eating, family reunions and the like. But my family and I, we don´t really make a fuss of the Christmas season anymore and go about those days pretty much like we would any given day; we have bypassed the inherent consumerism of this date and settled for a milder version of the Christmas break. We used to celebrate Christmas some more when both my younger brother and I were tiny little kids, but ever since we discovered with disenchantment the truth about who dear Santa really was and stopped fretting that much about the presents, Christmas stopped being much of a special thing and became merely another break in our yearly calendars where to take some rest, catch up with good reads, and gain some weight. It may not sound alluring to many of you, but I can’t really think of anything more relaxing than this. And so, what Christmas really amounts to for me and my family back home is a slightly more fanciful dinner on Christmas’ and New Year’s Eve followed by a few films or some TV sheltered in the living-room from outer cold or rain.

In any case, and even if we don´t really celebrate Christmas in the traditional way—which, for the most part, tends to observe Catholic rites more than those of any other cult—I can nonetheless say that there’s not much of a difference between the way Christmas is celebrated in Spain and in the States, other than, perhaps, the actual difference in dates in which presents are exchanged and the peculiar farewell we make to the old year on the eve of December 31st.

Most families typically choose between exchanging their Christmas presents on the 24th of December, the regular Santa day—a.k.a. Papá Noel in Spain—or else waiting until the eve of January the 5th to celebrate La Noche de Reyes—thus commemorating the birth of child Jesus in Bethlehem and how Los Tres Reyes Magos were taken by a godsend star to make their offerings of myrrh, gold y incense to him.

Sometimes, indeed, families even celebrate both dates with a full load of presents, Christmas carols and traditional desserts (mostly marcipan, ‘polvorones’

and turrón.

Classes at high schools and primary schools are generally suspended around the 22nd of December and are only resumed after the 6th of January. As part of the celebration of these days, city halls organize Christmas parades in which the streets of the city are momentarily taken over by men and women in costume, variously dressed as Papá and Mamá Noel, the elves or as the different Reyes Magos (Cabalgata de Reyes). These big wheeled platforms full with color and lively Christmas songs, run through the city throwing sweets, garlands, and confetti for the youngest kids to take.

These parades are staged in the majority of the country and are often accompanied by other charity events where, thanks to donations, presents are given to the less fortunate kids. For it is mostly for children for whom these parades are really special and they do generally go completely crazy, overtaken by the magic of Santa and his crew greeting them from their carousel.

As to New Year’s Eve, also known as ‘Nochevieja,’ we also generally gather for dinner with the rest of the family and eat a menu comprised of at least three different dishes whose ingredients allow for regional variety but mostly contain some type of seafood or steamed vegetable as a starter, fish and salad as a warm up dish, and some meat (frequently ‘cordero’—lamb—or some other tasty and more refined type of meat) as the main course.

Once dinner’s over, and before twelve o’clock strikes, we hurry to the kitchen to make everything ready to reckon the New Year ‘con buen pie’—with good luck—a ritual that my family and I do observe. With a glass of champagne where something gold and old has been placed into—a ring most of the times which, of course, we don´t swallow!—wearing something red and with a dish containing twelve delicious grapes, we sit in front of the television ready to welcome the New Year as we watch the countdown live from La Puerta del Sol, Madrid and people struggling to eat the twelve grapes without choking themselves to death!

This tradition, greeting the New Year with a mouthful of grapes taken each in the last twelve seconds of the receding year, started first as a way to ridicule a law that intended to charge people in Madrid if they wanted to attend the Christmas parades. A bunch of people refused to pay for such a thing and decided to gather in La Puerta del Sol with some champagne and grapes as the richer people would have for New Year’s Eve’s dinner that day, and parody the injustice of a law that differently affected those with money and those without. It progressively grew into a tradition of its own and, now, every single family in Spain says goodbye to the year by having twelve grapes. Public TV channels put on special shows for the actual countdown presented by popular TV faces  (Show Nochevieja), and often, as well, feature as the last advertisement of the year the yearly commercial of a popular brand of Cava, Freixenet, typically consumed throughout Christmas.
These ads have grown so popular so as to become almost a Christmas tradition unto themselves, counting with famous actresses or figures of popularity in them. (Sara Baras) Shakira Freixenet

And this is basically it. Mostly, it is a time to celebrate, eat and relax with family, colleagues and friends as a New Year slides past into rearview and another one begins.

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