The Christmas season is one of those times when living in a foreign country might become quite complicated: there is a different way to celebrate it in every country, and each of them has its own customs. Spain is no exception. But we must admit that some of these traditions are ‘problematic’. Let us explain what we mean: there are some traditions that are not even clear to ourselves, so if you witness any of the scenes we are about to describe rest assured that the rest of the people around you will be as puzzled about them as yourself.
When does Christmas start in Spain? You might have been caught off guard walking along the city streets in the middle of November and noticing Christmas lights up on the trees already (fortunately, still switched off); and finding turrón,cakes and other Christmas products in the supermarkets. No, it’s not because Spaniards begin advent a month in advance: it has always been that way, even if we are not quite certain why. Do we have to be really well prepared when Christmas arrives? Is it the turrón industry, that wishes to throw some of their products our way, so that we cannot resist temptation and end up eating more sweets than usual? There is no rational answer, but there is a running joke that one of these days we’ll stumble upon Christmas in the month of August!
Why is there always shellfish on Christmas dinner menus? Inexplicably, most Christmas tables, even if they are on regions far inland, feature prawns, langoustines, crab… Christmas Eve can be a proper nightmare if you are allergic to shellfish. But, why this unwritten rule? Usually, it is said that the tradition stems from the post-war days (after the Civil War), when you would push the boat out and buy the most expensive goods available, since the special occasion had to be celebrated in style. These days, while shellfish is still relatively expensive, we can afford it more often than back then, but old habits die hard.
Should Christmas gifts be delivered by the Three Kings or by Father Christmas? Parents (and, recently, uncles, too) have it well hard with Christmas gifts for the children: traditionally, in Spain it has always been the Three Kings who bear gifts. So, what’s the problem? They do so on the evening of January 6, a few days before the start of school. Many parents have moved onto Father Christmas, who brings his gifts on Christmas Eve, in order for their kids to be able to enjoy the gifts during the thick of the holiday… But then, what about the evening of January 5, when all TV stations broadcast the cabalgata and grandparent still talk about Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar? The most common solution to this issue is to give a small present on Three Kings’ Day.
Does anyone really like “Peladillas” (Jordan almonds)? Traditionally, in Spain you leave a large platter full of turrón and other Christmas sweets on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve for guests to eat at their will. The funny thing is that in the end all that remains is a bunch of solitary white pebbles of sorts: they are not decoration, but Jordan almonds. Which is a simple almond covered in a hard coat of sugar. In other words, they are sweets meant to be eaten, except no one wants them, perhaps because they are so hard. But, if no one eats them, why is everyone still buying them and putting them on the sweets bowl? No one really knows, but if you leave them there long enough there is always someone who takes them in the end… sadly, however, only as a very last resort.
Should the one who gets the surprise gift pay for the roscón de reyes, or not? As you all know, the roscón is a Christmas cake in the shape of a ring that is part of every Spanish Christmas table without fail (you can find a recipe of this lovely dessert here). According to tradition, there has to be a surprise shape inside the roscón, which will land on the plate of one of the diners by sheer luck. Well, there is also some controversy surrounding this, since some people believe the “lucky” one to get the surprise should also be the one paying for the cake. Nevertheless, others believe the surprise is a sign of good luck. What to do next? Recently, a compromise has been reached: including a surprise shape and a dry bean inside the dough. And whoever gets the bean, pays for the cake.
Why do we eat grapes for good luck and then mistake the four strokes of the hour for the ones of the time? One of the most curious traditions in Spain at the end of the year concerns the good-luck grapes: practically every family in the country is glued to the TV, awaiting the chimes of the clock at Puerta del Sol in Madrid when it turns to 12 o’clock, in order to swallow the grapes to the tune of the strokes of the bell. But there is always a problem: the famous clock is ancient, and it also announces the hour with four additional strokes. Every 15 minutes four new strokes, different in tone to those marking the time, maps the progress towards the full hour. Needless to say, the four bells are also used prior to the twelve tolls of midnight… so, many people start eating their grapes ahead of time. The problem is so widespread that it has even plagued the reports of certain journalists broadcasting the event. How we might still make the same mistake after 114 years repeating the same celebration is, quite frankly, beyond us.
How is good fortune conjured during New Year’s Eve? Should the grapes not be enough, there are other, less institutionalised, ways of conjuring good luck on New Year’s Eve in Spain: slipping a ring or a golden accessory into the glass of cava with which the first toast of the year is made; placing your right foot over a piece of paper where several wishes have previously been written down, and then burning the paper in question; or, wearing red underwear that night. No one is really certain how these traditions came about, or if they are truly effective, although you can rest assured that if you start the year without choking on the grapes or on a ring and not having shown the colour of your underwear, you have been pretty lucky!
As you might have noticed, Christmas in Spain is crowded with unwritten codes that have absolutely no explanation at all. Some of them might live on for years to come (most of us hope it’s the red underwear one!), but the fact remains that, seen from the outside, these strange habits also add a bit of fun to the festivities.
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