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Spain’s festive timeline: festive pranks, annual lotteries, and the three kings of Orient

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In Spain, a prolonged period of festivity spanning Christmas and the New Year embraces several unique traditions, from an annual lottery draw and a Santa-equivalent who smokes a pipe, to the Spanish version of our April Fools Day and life-size nativity scenes.

Christmas season in Spain kicks off with El Día de la Inmaculada, a public holiday catering to the primarily Catholic population. Meaning Immaculate Conception in English, traditionally, the holiday celebrates the conception of the Virgin Mary but it is also associated with the time when shops unveil their Christmas window displays and the switching on of colourful Christmas lights.

Image credit: VinnyCiro on Pixabay

From the beginning of December, you will notice huge nativity scenes or bélens, constructed in town squares and in shop windows. The elaborate scenes often display farms, townhouses, and rivers, in a style entirely different to the miniature versions commonly seen in the UK. It is not unusual for Spanish families to have their own miniature bélen in their homes, too.

El Gordo

The 22nd December marks the day of El Gordo, Spain's famous lottery draw, which translates to “the Fat One”. El Gordo has run every year since 1812 even through civil war and, according to Lottoland, it is the world’s second longest running lottery.

One ticket costs €200, which is why many people opt to buy a tenth of a ticket, encouraging the traditional sharing of a ticket with family members, colleagues, and even strangers in bars and clubs. This way, many Spaniards get hold of some winnings.

What makes El Gordo particularly unusual is that the winning numbers are sung by school children from Madrid live on national television.

La Nochebuena

La Nochebuena is Christmas Eve to us, but the Spanish celebrate it quite differently. In the days leading up to La Nochebuena, some children piden el aguinaldo”, where they walk around the neighbourhood singing carols in return for money.

As night settles, families join together to eat delicious late dinner, which may include roast lamb, suckling pig, and seafood, depending on the area of Spain.

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At midnight, it is a tradition for small presents to be exchanged while others attend Midnight Mass, otherwise known as La Misa del Gallo, meaning the Rooster Mass. This originates from the common belief that the birth of Jesus Christ was announced by a rooster.

Unlike in England, Father Christmas does not typically deliver presents to children on Christmas Eve. Instead, most Spanish families wait until the 6th January to open Christmas gifts. However, this is different in the Basque Country where there is a different version of Santa under the name of Olentzero. This mythical giant dresses in peasant’s clothing,  smokes a pipe and delivers gifts on Christmas Eve.

In Catalonia, there is a regional tradition where children keep the Caga Tió, meaning the pooping log, in their homes or schools in the weeks leading to Christmas. The Caga Tió is literally a log with a face and legs dressed up in a blanket and hat, which is “fed” little bits of food each evening. When the 24th or 25th comes around, children hit the log with a stick whilst singling a traditional song, asking the log to excrete out sweets.

Christmas Day is typically spent quietly in the company of family since it is not the main day of celebration.

El Día de los Santos Inocentes

Three days later, on the 28th December, it is el Día de los Santos Inocentes, the Spanish equivalent of our April Fool’s Day. People play jokes and pranks on each other, wear funny costumes, and hold curious festivities such as Malaga’s Fiesta Mayor de Verdiales.

Nochevieja

On New Year’s Eve or Nochevieja, it is customary to eat twelve grapes with the 12 chimes of the clock at midnight alongside standard firework displays and late-night partying. Each grape is representative of the 12 months, and, if you eat all of them, you will have luck all year. This custom is best in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, where thousands of people gather and wait for the twelve gongs.

El Dia de Los Reyes Magos

For most people in the UK, festivities come to an end on New Year’s Day. However, the Spanish celebrate El Dia de Los Reyes Magos, which translates literally to Three King’s Day but is otherwise known as Epiphany. This day is most similar to the Western Christmas Day when most people receive Christmas gifts.

On the eve of Epiphany on the 5th January, communities prepare for the arrival of the Three Kings of the Orient. Processions and parades are organised, which feature floats of the three Kings who throw sweets to the crowds.

In the evening, children traditionally clean their shoes and leave them where they want the Three Kings to leave their presents. They often leave food, wine, and water for the kings and their camels too, in a similar way to how British children leave sherry and a mince pie for Father Christmas.

Nevertheless, despite the plethora of Spanish traditions over the festive period, families in Spain are being increasingly influenced by American TV, introducing Father Christmas so that children have more time to play with their presents from the 25th December.

Finally, a Spanish Christmas is not complete without a beloved Roscón de Reyes, a sweet bread ring topped with almonds and sweets, often stuffed with whipped cream, which is typically eaten on the 6th January. A small figurine is hidden within the roscón, and whoever finds it normally has to buy next year’s roscón.




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