& COOKING ARTICLE
in Spain - Spanish Christmas traditions
Christmas holiday season in Spain is a truly magical
affair. Although it doesn't get going until seemingly
the last minute, the Spanish throw themselves whole
heartedly into the spirit of things and the festivities
finally culminate on the 6th January.
true mark of the beginning of Christmas in Spain is
the Spanish national lottery draw held on December 22nd.
'El Gordo' or the fat one, is so called because it is
the largest national lottery in the world with the total
prize fund running into billions and it also has the
best odds of winning. The draw takes place throughout
the whole morning and the whole nation tunes in to watch
the very elaborate drawing of the numbers. The tickets
can cost up to 200 euros so many people club together
to buy a share, although there are those who put aside
a saving fund, sometimes up to 1000 euros to buy a few
tickets for the family. The lottery draw is the moment
when Christmas comes to Spain, this symbolic tradition
has been going for centuries and Christmas just wouldn't
be Christmas without it.
the lottery draw has been made, the festivities really
begin, students and children break up for the holidays
and lights, decorations and trees suddenly appear overnight.
The traditional Christmas decoration for a true Spanish
Christmas is the 'belén' or nativity scene. Just
like other countries across the world, where Christmas
trees take centre stage in town and village squares,
each town and village has its own belen. Some of these
scenes are breathtakingly beautiful and elaborate and
can be visited in town halls and churches across the
land. Even personal ones can take over whole rooms in
the house and just with the Christmas tree it is a magical
family time spent putting it together and adding all
the little touches. As well as the traditional religious
characters and popular local scenes, one special character
is paramount to the Spanish belen. He is known as 'el
Cagón' and to be polite, he is a figure in a
squat position doing a poo! His presence symbolises
the fertilisation of the land for the coming year but
of course provides much amusement for the children.
Although an important and historical figure in the belén,
he has been banned from public nativity scenes in many
towns by local governments so as not to cause offence
. . .
like other Christmas celebrations, here in Spain it
is a time to gather the family together and celebrate
with a meal. The main Christmas meal in Spain is held
on Christmas Eve or 'Noche Buena'
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meal on the eve of the 24th is the most important meal
in the Spanish calendar and is always held in the evening,
many people won't even start until after midnight as
the old saying goes, " Esta noche es Noche Buena,
y no es de dormir" this night is the Good Night,
and is not meant for sleeping"
the celebrations usually begin early evening when friends
and family meet in bars for a drink before returning
home for the main event. Like most Christmas meals,
the Spanish one involves a lot of preparation, many
courses, lots to drink and lasts all night.
can expect to find a large array of mouth watering seasonal
delights at the table during the meal. Popular foods
for starters or appetisers are shellfish and cold cuts
of meat which are usually followed by soup and then
another fish dish. A traditional one is 'besugo' which
is baked bream but you may also find lobster, crab,
salmon, hake, sea bass or trout. Then for the main course
the traditional roast is lamb or sucking pig although
duck, or turkey served with truffles are becoming more
popular. Dessert is traditionally a selection of sweets
and cakes such as marzipan, 'polvorones' a sweet kind
of bread or Spanish turrón which is nougat made
with sweet toasted almonds and has been made in Spain
for centuries. The only drink to accompany your meal
is Cava, the Spanish equivalent of champagne which many
say is far better than its French counterpart.
must do for a true Spanish Christmas is midnight mass
which people go to either before or after the meal,
depending on the time they eat. Christmas midnight mass
in Spain is known as 'La Misa del Gallo' or 'Rooster
Mass' because the rooster was the first to announce
the birth of Christ. Once the meal and mass is over,
people return home to exchange gifts. Children will
often only receive a small gift as 'Papa Noel' is less
popular than the Three Kings who arrive on 5th January
with presents for all the children. The evening, or
morning, usually ends in a bar or disco where whole
families gather to party and celebrate once the family
festivities are over.
day is a quiet affair and the quietest in the Spanish
calendar. People meet up for a walk or a drink and while
many continue the celebrations with a meal in a restaurant,
most people are still recovering from the evening before.
In Catalonia, there is a wonderful Christmas day tradition
which goes by the name of "El Tio." Basically
a decorated log or tree trunk is 'fed' with sweets and
other goodies during the few days before Christmas and
then on the day, children sing the traditional catalan
Christmas song and beat El Tio with a stick when he
produces sweets and other delights for all the family.
after Christmas day on December 28th there is another
curious celebration unique to Spain called 'The Day
of the Innocents.' Although the origins of this fiesta
lie in murders of women and children committed by Herod
in Judea, modern day celebrations are similar to those
of April fools Day on a much larger scale. Newspapers
print ridiculous stories and even prominent political
figures get involved. Never believe anything you see
or hear on this day and watch your step carefully!
Year's Eve or 'Noche Vieja' in Spain is celebrated much
like everywhere else with a few unique exceptions. It
is apparently tradition to wear red underwear which
must be bought for you by someone else (although I've
never been brave enough to check this one out for myself).
Another great and long standing tradition is 'las doce
uvas' or the twelve grapes. At the stroke of midnight,
one grape must be eaten with each chime of the bell
or clock, anyone who manages all twelve are said to
have good luck throughout the coming year. It is a tradition
taken very seriously by many Spanish people and while
some of us are still struggling at ten past twelve,
there are lots of people well practiced in the art.
Preparation is everything though, I remember helping
to peel and deseed enough grapes for ten people last
year . . . you can buy ready prepared grapes in tins
but it is not the same somehow.
the grapes have been eaten and multiple kisses bestowed,
the party really begins. Again, whole families from
the young to the old can be seen in bars and discos
celebrating the beginning of the New Year until the
Spanish children, the best days of the festive season
have to be the 5th and 6th of January. While the rest
of us are packing away the trees and tired decorations,
Spanish children everywhere are preparing for the arrival
of the Three Kings. In Spain it is not Santa who brings
the children their presents, but the Three Kings or
'Los Reyes Magos'. On the 5th January, the eve of Epiphany
children go to local parades which herald the arrival
of the Three Kings. Each village parade consists of
decorative floats with a variety of themes and sweets
and streamers being thrown into the crowds. At the end
of the parade, children get the opportunity to ask the
Three Kings for their chosen gift and then leave their
shoes out overnight in which their gift will be placed.
In many villages though, the parade of the Three Kings
culminates in a gathering at the local church or school
hall where each child's name is called out and they
receive a small gift. The day of the 6th January is
a national holiday, much like Christmas Day, when children
wake up to presents left by the Three Kings.
typical dessert of the day is called "Rosca de
los Reyes" and is a home baked ring style bread
decorated with coloured jellies to symbolise the jewels
worn by the three Kings. Inside is hidden a small surprise
similar to what we find in Christmas crackers. Anyone
lucky enough to find the hidden surprise may be crowned
King or Queen for the day!
celebrations in Spain are fantastic and what I like
is the way things are not commercialised as they are
in the UK for example. Walking down the road at the
beginning of December, you would hardly notice that
Christmas is round the corner, there are very few Christmas
adverts on TV and it seems ages before lights and decorations
go up. However once the fever takes over, you are spoiled
by the generosity of Christmas spirit bestowed on you
by the locals, you get free gifts in the shops and free
tipples in the town hall, lights and decorations appear
as if by magic, there is music to be heard and people
seem to suddenly take to the streets and squares just
to wish you well and enjoy the atmosphere which goes
on right until January.
6th January marks the end of the Christmas celebrations
in Spain and then like everywhere else, it's back to
the same old routine. But don't worry the next fiesta
is just around the corner . . .
and written by Gayle Hartley
Copyright 2007 Orce Serrano Hams - www.orceserranohams.com
17 October 2007
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