December 8th – The Christmas season begins with a weeklong observance of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Spanish families often travel to the south of the country where the weather is warmer and there may even be flowers in bloom. In many paces such as Seville the Spanish have their own way of celebrating Christmas. In Seville’s great cathedral, they watch ten costumed boys perform an ancient dance called Los Seises to honour the Virgin Mary. In northern Spain, families decorate their balconies with colourful carpets, flags, and flowers and they burn candles all night in the windows.
December 22nd – The Spanish Christmas lottery, El Gordo or ‘The Fat One’, is the biggest lottery in the world and also one of the oldest, having started in 1812. While the first prize in 2005 was ‘only’ 3€ million, El Gordo has the biggest prize pool of any lottery in the world, totalling over two billion Euros!
El Gordo works differently from most lotteries in the world. Tickets are very expensive, but you don’t have to buy the entire ticket. However, if you don’t buy the whole thing, you can’t get the whole winnings! The whole El Gordo draw process takes in excess of three hours so you will often see people sitting by their radios or watching the television for much of the day, waiting for the results.
Different Ways of Participating in El Gordo
Billete – 200€ each – An entire ticket of one number which consists of 10 “décimos”
Décimo – 20€ each – One tenth of a full ticket (Billete). Most people purchase Décimos.
Serie – Each Billete, or number, is printed up many times as a different series.
Number – A unique 5 digit Number is printed for each Billete and on the subsequent series of that Billete. Eg: the Billete with the number “00001” is printed 195 times under different series numbers.
Participations – Many organizations buy Décimos and divide them up and sell them as Participations to their customers or employees. Usually they will copy the original ticket, write the amount of the Participation, and sign it as proof of participation. If the ticket is a winner, anyone holding a Participation will be entitled to the corresponding amount, depending on the amount they paid.
There are many Outdoor Markets held during December and you can buy anything from traditional crafts to local wines. Many of the churches are decorated with evergreens and any flowers that are available and many Spanish will attend services every day up until Christmas. Like any other fiesta, the Spanish love to celebrate by making lots of noise with tambourines, gourd rattles, castanets, and miniature guitars which are offered for sale to enliven the singing and dancing in the streets. Children go from house to house reciting verses or singing carols for sweets, toys, or small instruments.
Life-size nativity scenes called nacimientos or Belens are set up in public places. Many of the townsfolk spend hours making these elaborate scenes. Some of them are very impressive and can cover massive areas. Some are animated and illuminated and draw huge crowds. Almost every family has a small nacimiento in the best room in the house and in some villages families send their sons to bring in a Yule log. As the boys pull the log home, they stop at homes along the way for chocolates and nuts.
December 24th – Christmas Eve or La Noche Buena, the Blessed Night is when the first star shines in the evening sky and people light bonfires, called luminarias, in public squares and outside churches. Traditional plays are enacted called Las Pastores depicting the shepherds’ adoration of the Christ Child in Bethlehem.
In the Spanish homes, many families place a burning candle above the door and light candles around the nacimiento. People often fast all day and then go as a family to midnight mass known as “La Misa Del Gallo”. After returning home they might enjoy a feast of almond soup, roast meat, baked red cabbage, and sweet potato or pumpkin. As usual in Spain, shellfish is very popular.
December 25th – Although Christmas Day is not the main day for the Spanish, this is now set aside for family reunions, when relatives get together for more feasting. The children may sing and dance around the nacimiento and family members exchange gifts. Some families add to the fun with the traditional Urn of Fate. Names are written on cards and placed in a bowl. Then two names are drawn at a time. It is expected that those two people will be friendly to each other throughout the coming year.
December 28th – Día de los Santos Inocentes (Innocent Saints’ Day). The Spanish commemorate the Biblical Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. On this day, all kinds of hoaxes and jokes (called inocentadas) are committed on friends and relatives. In this sense, it is the equivalent of the April Fools’ Day.
December 31st – New Year’s Eve is celebrated in Spain with street parties and fireworks. It is traditional to wear red underwear, but this must have been bought for you by someone else. It is a time for the families again as they gather to celebrate the New Year. Most of the Spanish restaurants will be closed and the streets deserted until midnight when many will go out celebrating. Another tradition is of course the eating of 12 grapes. These grapes represent the 12 strikes at midnight, bringing good luck for the New Year. Most of the grapes sold especially for New Year are from Vinalopo near Alicante.
January 5th – Children believe that at the beginning of Epiphany, the Three Kings or ‘Los Reyes Magos’ travelled through Spain on their way to Bethlehem.
‘Los Reyes Magos’ are:
Gaspar has brown hair and a brown beard and wears a green cloak and a gold crown with green jewels on it. He is the King of Sheba. Gaspar represents the Frankincense brought to Jesus.
Melchior has long white hair and a white beard and wears a gold cloak. He is the King of Arabia. Melchior represents the Gold brought to Jesus.
Balthazar has black skin and a black beard and wears a purple cloak. He is the King of Tarse and Egypt. Balthazar represents the gift of Myrrh that was brought to Jesus. Myrrh is a perfume that is put on dead bodies to make them smell nice.
‘Los Reyes Magos’ take the place of Father Christmas in Spain, although many children now like to see Father Christmas as well! Children set out their shoes filled with straw for the Three Kings’ camels before they go to bed on the eve of January 5th. The straw is removed and it is replaced with a gift.
January 6th – There will be more celebrating and eating including a special nougat candy called turron and marzipan. Children carry special cakes for ‘Los Reyes Magos’ and other foods for their servants and camels. They are hoping to meet the Three Kings on their way to the Holy Land. Always disappointed in their hopes, the children eat the good things they have brought with them! They then go to the local church where they find the Three Kings presenting gifts to Jesus in a manger.
A special cake is made for ‘Los Reyes Magos’ and sold all over Spain. Roca de Reyes is a ring shaped pastry (tasting similar to hot cross buns). It is covered with sugar and fruit flavoured jellies. Beware as the cake will contain plastic toys and presents. Anyone lucky enough to find one of the little gifts will be blessed with good luck all year.
The Christmas season ends at Epiphany with the “Cavalcade of the Kings,” a wonderful parade of the Three Kings and live animals.