Christmas 2017 and 2018
Spain’s celebration of Christmas is steeped in unique customs and traditions, and the Christmas festivities begin earlier than in other countries.
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The Christmas season begins on December 8 with the feast of the Immaculate Conception. This day is celebrated with a ceremony in front of the cathedral in Seville, and a special dance is performed, known as “Los Seises,” or the “Dance of Six.”
The tradition of Los Seises dates back to the 16th century. A group of choir boys dressed in bright costumes performs lively dances and sweet songs. At midnight, university students sing and play traditional hymns to Blessed Mother.
Fire jumping and “The Big One” lottery
On Hogueras, December 21, Spaniards jump over a fire to gain protection from winter illness. Then, each year, a lottery called “El Gordo” is drawn on December 22. Translated as “The Big One,” this is a tradition that logs five hours on television, while people watch for the winning numbers.
Those not near a TV are riveted to the radio. People in offices, factories, and bars put their activities on hold until the drawing ends. Numbers are announced in song. The National Christmas Lottery affects many lives, as multiple prizes are awarded. The masterminds behind the lottery are most generous at heart. Numerous tickets with the same numbers are issued, resulting in various first and second prize winners. There are plentiful smaller prizes as well. The Christmas lottery originated in 1763, under the rule of King Carlos III.
On Christmas Eve or “Nochebuena,” homes are lit up with tiny lamps as the stars begin to twinkle. People gather at home for an elaborate feast. The Nochebuena is the largest meal of the year. The dinner includes special holiday sweets. Several types of almond candy are served. Mantecados is a Spanish shortbread made with crushed, toasted almonds. Polvorones are similar but sweeter. Turrón is a Spanish nougat of almonds and honey. Mazapán is a colorful almond paste confection.
Churches chime at midnight, summoning worshipers to the “Misa del Gallo,” or Mass of the Rooster. The mass has this name in reference to the legend that a rooster crowed on the night of Jesus’ birth.
A manger or “nacimiento” has a place of honor in most Spaniards’ homes. A cow is typically featured among the carved figures. It is believed that the cow in the stable where Jesus was born breathed on the baby to keep Him warm. A bull is also present, as the symbol of Spain. People gather around the nativity and sing Christmas carols, called “villancicos.” In towns, life-size nativities are displayed, which may even include real people and animals. The nativity dates back to 1224, when St. Francis of Assisi created the first live manger scene.
In the evening, people take to dancing in the streets. A special dance called the “Jota” is performed, accompanied by castanets and guitars.
Christmas is a rather quiet day in comparison to Christmas Eve. People joyfully attend church. Some gifts are exchanged, but mostly it’s a time for families to gather and spend time together. Many people play on swing sets assembled for the occasion. Swinging is done to encourage the sun to “swing” higher in the sky during the time of the winter solstice.
Feast of the Holy Innocents
On December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents is celebrated with bonfires. Young boys light the fires. One boy acts as “mayor,” assigning tasks to townspeople, such as sweeping the street.
“Innocents’ Day” is also the platform for “inocentadas” or practical jokes. People play pranks on each other, hoping to trick them. When a prankster is caught, the joker says “Inocente! Inocente!”
New Year’s Eve
On “Nochevieja” or New Year’s Eve, Spaniards gather in the Puerta del Sol of Madrid. There they await the chiming of the clock tower in the capital square. The excitement culminates at midnight, when four high-pitched “cuartos” or gongs precede the twelve clock chimes. Then each person eats twelve grapes, one for each chime. It’s believed that doing so will bring a year of prosperity.
On January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, children are given presents. The Magi are highly revered in Spain. They were the three Kings who brought gifts to the infant Jesus. Legend has it that every year during Epiphany, the three Kings journey back to Bethlehem. In honor of the Wise Men’s steeds, children put their shoes on windowsills and fill them with carrots, straw, and barley. The next morning, in place of camel food, the children find gifts from the three Kings. Adults exchange gifts as well. In Spain, more gifts are exchanged at Epiphany than during Christmas. A special sweet is served on Epiphany, called “un roscón de Reyes.” It is a round bun filled with candied fruit and hidden prizes, such as coins.