Christmas in Spain is quite different from Christmas in the UK. For example in the UK Christmas seems to appear in the shops at the end of the summer but in Spain shops don’t generally start stocking Christmas goodies until late November.
At this time, millions of tiny street lights go up and towns and villages become adorned with Poinsettias, the traditional red Christmas plant. In every town, most churches and houses proudly lay out their nativity scene, known as Belén. The Belén always includes the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph as well as the Three Kings, Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar (who deliver presents to children in January).
December 8th is the public holiday of Immaculada (Feast of the Immaculate Conception). This marks the beginning of the religious Christmas celebrations.
The biggest sign that Christmas is around the corner is the state-run Christmas lottery that is drawn on December 22nd. 'El Gordo' (meaning the Fat One) is one of the largest lotteries in the world and people all over Spain are glued to their televisions and radios as the El Gordo lottery is drawn over a period of many hours.
It would be hard to find someone in Spain that hasn’t bought a ticket or two for this lottery in the hope of winning El Gordo (the fat one). Lottery tickets are sometimes bought by several people in the same village meaning that over night many people from one area become a lot richer. As well as the three big prizes there are thousands of smaller ones that are shared by people all over Spain.
Christmas Eve in Spain is called Nochebuena, meaning goodnight. It is the most important family gathering of the entire year and is quite easily the busiest day of ‘Christmas’. For most of the day you will find many a housewife in the kitchen preparing the many courses of traditional Spanish fare.
Early on in the evening it is common for people to meet up with friends for a drink before returning home to tuck into this grand feast of fish, meats and the typical Christmas sweet called Turrón (Nougat) with their family. This is all washed down with plenty of fine Spanish wines and Christmas is toasted with Cava, the Catalan champagne.
Because it is such a family time you will find most bars and restaurants do close for the evening.
Christmas day is a national holiday in Spain, meaning all the shops are closed but the day itself is much quieter, with not much celebration taking place at all. People will relax with a pleasant stroll or a drink in their local bar before sitting down to another large family meal either at home or at a restaurant which has become a lot more common now.
Children may receive one small gift on either the eve of Nochebuena or sometimes on Christmas morning but the big day for presents is actually January 6th, Epiphany, when the three kings deliver the children their presents.
The day of Santos Inocentes (Holy Innocents) is on the 28th December. This is very much akin to our April Fools day when practical jokes are played all over the country, to the extent that even the national media take part by including an ‘untrue’ story in the news, just to trick people!
In some smaller towns and villages the younger people light bonfires and one individual takes on the part of the local mayor, who then issues the town people with orders to carry out some civic jobs such as road sweeping. If a person refuses to carry out the task they are issued a fine, these fines are then used to pay for the celebrations.