Christmas Traditions in Spain
For Christians around the world, Christmas can be a deeply religious time – a season that is mixed with moments of quiet, solemn prayer with festive celebrations in which no one requires an instruction to eat, drink and be merry.
But only in Spain do la familia indulge in the custom of hogueras, or lighting fires and jumping over them in a symbolic effort to protect themselves against illness. The Spanish view this risky practice as something of an insurance policy -- believing that if they can dodge the flames, they can also dodge the discomforts of illness.
The tradition predates the arrival of Christianity in Spain and takes place on the shortest day of the year – the winter solstice and the beginning of winter – and primarily in the towns of Jaen and Granada.
The Spanish celebrate Navidad in more traditional ways, too, for its nearly 47 million people are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and revere their patron saint: the Virgin Mary.
For many families, the season begins with the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, when a gothic cathedral in Seville hosts a dance ritual known as los seises (the “dance of six”) though it actually features 10 choir boys dressed in 16th century costumes.
At about this time of year, elaborate Christmas markets spring up throughout the capital city of Madrid and other scenic country villages. These colorful and aromatic markets sell candy, fruit, flowers, marzipan, hand-made Christmas gifts and nacimientos, or nativity scenes.
These beautifully sculpted scenes feature the traditional biblical characters, including the reyes magos (the three wise men) carrying gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense. But they also include some distinctly Spanish touches, including a cow, since it is believed that a cow’s heavy breath kept the baby Jesus warm as he slept in the stable. Some nacimientos include a Spanish bull and bullfighters posing as onlookers.
The Spanish are fond of lighting small oil lamps and perching them in windowsills on Christmas Eve, which is known as noche buena, or “the good night” in Spain. The quiet doesn’t last for long on this night, for church bells ring out at about midnight to call families to assemble for the La Misa del Gallo, or the Mass of the rooster – so named to signify the birth of Jesus as the only time a rooster has ever crowed at midnight.
One of the most spectacular of these candlelit midnight Masses takes place in the monastery of Montserrat, high up in the mountains near Barcelona. Here, a boy’s choir strives to perform the vocal selections in "one pure voice." At other churches, midnight Mass is followed by a special Christmas dance called a jota, with guitars and castanets playing in the background.
The jubilation continues right through a family feast served after Mass that often features pavo trufado de Navidad, or Christmas turkey with truffles (a mushroom-like delicacy). Other Spanish families enjoy roasted lamb and, in this country of seafood lovers, perhaps smoked salmon, sea bass with fresh cream or prawns served with garlic mayonnaise.
Few Spanish families would celebrate Christmas without turron, a rich nougat candy with an equally rich history. Dating back to the 16th century, traditional recipes call for egg white, honey, sugar, lemon and toasted ground almonds. Modern variations call for nuts, chocolate, honey, dried fruit, coconut and liqueur. The nougat can be either soft and chewy or hard and crunchy, but few Spanish families could imagine celebrating the holiday without it.
With sugar supplying a burst of energy, many Spanish families sing Christmas carols and enjoy champagne until early Christmas morning. Some people may return to church, but the day is usually a quiet one for most families, except those whose children engage in “swinging” – a distinctly Spanish tradition during which children are thought to encourage the sun to shine brightly by swinging closer to the sky. To the sound of music in the background, the tradition can be the scene of much fun and laughter.
Lest they think their attention is being diverted from presents and toys, children leave out their shoes on the eve of the Epiphany, January 5, in the hope that one of the three kings – Melchior, Gaspar or Balthazar – will leave gifts, just as they did for the baby Jesus.
Spanish children are said to revere the three kings – and especially Balthazar, for he is the one believed to leave toys and candy. The triumvirate continue their efforts for most of the day and are often seen distributing gifts to children in hospitals and orphanages all over Spain.
In their honor, many Spanish families enjoy roscón de los reyes, or king cake, on January 6. Shaped in the form of a ring, it is filled with dried nuts and fruit and something more: a coin, ring or other trinket that the careful recipient extracts before he or she is heralded as “king” or “queen” for the day. This “buried treasure” can be easy to miss in the excitement over the beauty of the cake, for it is lavishly decorated with candied fruits that are meant to replicate the emeralds and rubies that glittered on the robes of the three kings.
As the holiday season comes to a close, it probably would be difficult to find a Spaniard who didn’t revel in the expectation to eat, drink and be merry – all while paying homage to the traditional, religious customs that so define this deeply religious country.