For many Brits the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Spain is not – let’s face it – a festive Christmas.
You merely have to glance at the average Christmas card – with idyllic pictures of Victorian streets lined with golden, log-fire-lit windows as confetti snow gently falling from fluffy white clouds – to know that we Brits like to romanticise this time of year.
It’s all very … British.
Ah! Those early nights, and the now familiar chill in the air, with many of us taking to those packed high streets in a flurry of frenetic shopping activity in search of that perfect Christmas gift.
Now, of course, there is also that often dreamed-of white Christmas – bringing with it snowmen, sledges and snowball fights, and, of course, the impossibility of driving just about anywhere.
But Spain? Surely this is a summer holiday destination?
You’d be surprised. Very surprised.
Although the Spanish Christmas has much in common with the one we’re familiar with, it has some unique additions.
For a start, the weather can be surprisingly cold. With much of the country being arid plateau or mountainous terrain, temperatures can plummet if you’re away from the coast.
So, let’s take a look at just how Spain celebrates the festive period.
You’ll find your festive period kicking off with a good old fashioned lottery – Spanish style!
Christmas in Spain just isn’t Christmas without the world-renowned lottery, El Gordo – ‘The Fat One’ – which unfolds over the morning of December 22.
Although at first this may sound nothing like the Christmas we all know and love, it is for the Spanish a unique event, and boasts of being the second longest-running lottery in the world.
Known as the Spanish Christmas Lottery, it started out in Cádiz in 1812. And with nearly three-quarters of Spaniards buying a ticket, it has become a nationwide event where everyone dreams of hitting the jackpot.
Last year, for example, the main prize ran at €720 million, which could certainly pay for a few Christmas presents!
The draw itself takes up to three hours, so you’ll see many Spaniards gathered around radios and TV-sets awaiting the results.
However, as some of the tickets can be quite expensive, it is not uncommon for entire villages to pool together and purchase a group ticket.
This offers you a unique opportunity to socialise, to get involved with the community in a bid to spread out the potential winnings. In fact, in doing this you automatically partake in what the Christmas spirit is all about – sharing and community spirit.
No doubt about it, El Gordo is an exciting affair, and what’s more – it’s just plain good fun!
There’s nothing like a good Christmas market – and Spain has its fair share.
For example, there is Barcelona’s wonderfully situated Fira de Santa Llúcia, located in a beautiful square overlooked by Barcelona’s gorgeously gothic cathedral, a formidable architectural achievement that is lit up at night – rather like a giant Christmas tree.
This market consists of the familiar wooden chalet stalls, with many foods cooking away such as turkey and mulled wines, fine lagers and beers and, of course, Spanish wine almost running on tap.
All sound familiar?
Well, yes . . . but then there’s also the Spanish tradition of beating old Caga Tio – which in Catalan literally means ‘Pooping Uncle’
This curious and oddly fascinating phenomenon is one of the most common features of many – most likely all – Spanish Christmas markets you’ll attend.
Cago Tio is essentially a wooden log with a friendly hand-painted face, usually topped with a colourful Santa Claus hat or a small colourful blanket. The story goes that he turns up around Christmas time and is expected to be cared for by children who take him in and ‘feed’ him orange peel and dried beans.
Expected to bear his carer gifts, they have to lovingly beat him until he ‘poops’ his hazelnuts, cheese and nougat. (Yes, you read that correctly!)
Of course, the children are expected to leave the room and pray that Cago Tio shall bestow them with gifts. This is the parent’s opportunity to sneak sweets and other gifts underneath his cloak. Once the children return – and beat the perpetually joyous log with sticks – he unveils his sumptuous ‘poop’ in the form of such sugary – or savoury – delights.
In an admittedly strange sort of way, you have just been introduced to the Spanish equivalent of Santa Claus.
It is these idiosyncrasies of the Spanish Christmas that you will find yourself becoming increasingly familiar with. Although they might seem strange at first, they will quickly become an amusing and entertaining addition to your own traditional Christmas plans.
If Spain has its own equivalent to our beloved Christmas Day, then it is certainly Epiphany – or ‘Three Kings’ Day – celebrated on 6 January.
Instead of the children writing to Santa Claus they write instead to the Three Kings, who grant all their wishes in the form of toys, computer games, and so on. However, the Spanish celebrate this day with style and bombast in which every city, town and village is suddenly exploding with sweets and gifts.
The Three Kings consist of King Melchior, who represents Europe, with King Caspar as Asia and King Balthazar of African origin. These three generous men almost supplant the role of Father Christmas, but they have one crucial addition – they can punish bad children with a lump of coal instead.
Nowadays, of course, that is replaced with a sweet-tasting coal look-a-like!
Parades and the carnival spirit pervades, and it proves itself to be a uniquely joyous day for Spaniards and expats alike. Following on just under a week from New Year’s, the Spanish Christmas for the expat adds a new dimension to the celebrations we’re all familiar with.
The celebrations usually start before Epiphany proper, where hundreds of people gather to re-enact the arrival of the Three Kings into their neighbourhood or city. A colourful affair, with plenty of food and drink to go around – and, indeed, an equally handsome share of sweets.
Many people bring out ladders, attempting to step above the crowd to grab bags of candles or other goodies.
And then, of course, there is the traditional Epiphany cake, which is covered in sugary fruits and, inside, there is usually a prize hidden inside by the baker. This, in its own way, is similar to the traditional Christmas cracker, but with the advantage of being edible!
The first person to find this hidden prize, of course, gets the wear the traditional paper crown.
Although the Spanish Christmas has many differences to the traditional British version that we all know and love, it also has its own unique flavour. There is a lot of humour and fun to be found by simply throwing yourself into these new and unfamiliar festivities.
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