Christmas is a deeply religious holiday in Spain. The country’s patron saint is the Virgin Mary and the Christmas season officially begins December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is celebrated each year in front of the great Gothic cathedral in Seville with a ceremony called los Seises or the “dance of six.” Oddly, the elaborate ritual dance is now performed by not six but ten elaborately costumed boys. It is a series of precise movements and gestures and is said to be quite moving and beautiful.

Christmas is celebrated all over Spain. Some towns have special rituals or processions, religious plays or people singing Christmas carols and asking for the “aguinaldo” (tip or small gift). During the Christmas celebrations, the streets of cities, towns and villages are decked with colour, lights and fiesta lights, creating a magical atmosphere. At Christmas time, there is a huge variety of sweets available, although the star product is definitely turrón. Another of the most traditional Christmas sweets in Spain is marzipan, which is made with almonds and sugar and can usually be found in the form of “little shapes”.

One tradition not at all common elsewhere are the “Hogueras” (bonfires). This tradition originated long before Christmas itself. It is the observance of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the beginning of winter. It is characterized by people jumping over fires as a symbolic protection against illness. This fire-jumping can be seen primarily in Granada and Jaen.

Christmas Eve (Nochebuena or “the Good Night”) is more important than Christmas Day to the Spanish and they usually attend Midnight Mass (called the Misa del Gallo or the “Rooster’s Mass”). Often, as the Christmas Eve stars appear, tiny oil lamps are lit, warming village windows. The crowds at the Christmas markets thin as shoppers return to prepare for the coming meal. The most beautiful of these candlelight services is held at the monastery of Montserrat, high in the mountain near Barcelona, which is highlighted by a boy’s choir describes as performing the Mass in “one pure voice.”

Christmas Dinner is never eaten until after midnight. It is a family feast, and often highlighted with “Pavo Trufado de Navidad” (Christmas turkey with truffles). After the meal, family members gather around the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols and hymns of Christendom. The rejoicing continues through the early hours of the morning. An old Spanish verse says…

“Esta noche es Noche-Buena, Y no es noche de dormir” (This is the goodnight, therefore it is not meant for sleep.)

Christmas Day is normally spent at Church, at feasts and in more merry-making. A custom peculiar to Spain is that of “swinging.” Swings are set up throughout the courtyards and young people swing to the accompaniment of songs and laughter.

In the past, the traditional day for gifts was Epiphany or King’s Day on Jan 6, but now that is giving way to Christmas, although gifts are normally exchanged on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day.

Another difference is that in Spain the Christmas tree is not traditional but the traditional symbol is a Nativity scene. These are often very elaborate with scenes from everyday life (chestnut sellers, shopkeepers, blacksmiths etc). If you are in Spain before Christmas, be sure to see the Nativity (usually called “Belen”, Bethlehem in Spanish) at the towns you visit. Some shop windows are decorated with a Belen and you may also find stores selling Nativity figures.

New Year (“Nochevieja” ) is celebrated with parties like other places in the world, although it is traditional in Spain to eat twelve grapes on the twelve strokes of midnight to ensure good luck in the New Year. This can be done if you are fast, neat and don’t start laughing at your friends with chipmunk-cheeks full of grapes. It helps to hold your stash of grapes right next to your mouth. Although the chiming of the bells is broadcast on live television throughout Spain, the best thing is to head for the scene of the celebration and take active part in the event. In Spain there is a place that has a special link with this tradition: the clock in Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid. Like London, thousands of people congregate here to see in the year, dressed up with hats, party blowers, horns, masks and jokes. Hotels, pubs, bars and clubs usually hold their own New Year’s Eve parties, where you can dance until dawn.

Three King’s Day on January 6 signifies the end of the extended holiday season in Spain. This day is celebrated in a number of towns with King’s Day celebrations with theatre and traditional dancing. In Spain it is Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar who bring Christmas presents to children who have been good during the year. After writing a letter, in which they tell the Kings which presents they would like, the long-awaited day finally arrives. The Wise Men parade through the streets of cities, towns and villages all over Spain in traditional cavalcades. Their camels loaded with presents, they go through the streets handing out sweets, accompanied by their royal pages. Little by little the colourful floats go by, entertaining all the family. Of all these parades, the one in Alcoi, Alicante, is particularly outstanding – it is Spain’s oldest. When night falls, children go to bed early to wait for Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar to come in through the window and leave presents in their shoes.

On the 7th January, everything returns back to normal and the schools and businesses open again.