Each culture has their own, unique, way of celebrating the festivals that are important to them - and as you’d expect, Christmas is a pretty special time of the year in Spain. Christmas in Spain is celebrated over several weeks, with a focus on spending time with family, eating great food, and honouring traditions - many of which are centuries old. While many of the typical festivities may be familiar, there are certainly some which could surprise you if you’re spending Christmas in Spain for the first time.
Pull up a chair. Here’s everything you need to know about Christmas in Spain.
Christmas traditions in Spain vary somewhat by region - but wherever in Spain you find yourself over the festive season, you’re going to have a pretty wild time, full of family, friends and food.
From around December 13th- St Lucia Day - you’ll start to see Christmas trees and nativity scenes being put up in town squares and near churches. However, for most families the party really gets started on Christmas Eve, with a large family dinner in the evening. Traditionally everyone would then attend La Misa Del Gallo (mass of the rooster, or midnight mass in many other cultures) together, although nowadays many people choose to skip this.
After mass, people will sing Christmas carols and traditional songs, often accompanied by tambourines and drums. It’s also common for people to light candles to help guide baby Jesus into their homes. Traditionally, children only get a few presents over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with the main gifts given out on January 6th for Epiphany.
One unusual custom is Día de los Santos Inocentes (Day of the Innocent Saints). Celebrated on December 28th, this is similar to April Fool’s Day, with people trying to trick others into believing far-fetched stories and so on. This light-hearted tradition commemorates the biblical story of the killing of the innocents when King Herod ordered babies to be killed with the intention of murdering the baby Jesus.
Most people will share Christmas with their family and eat at home. Usually families will eat their large, celebratory meal on Christmas Eve before heading out to mass. In coastal regions, this will consist of fish and seafood, while elsewhere dishes like lamb, or turkey stuffed with truffles will be the main dish.
Another special dish of the season is a heavy, cream-filled cake called Roscón de Reyes (King’s Ring), which is now eaten in many places in Spain at Epiphany. However, this tradition was originally from Roman times and related to the worship of Roman god Saturn.
As god of agriculture, slaves were granted a holiday in Saturn’s honour when the agricultural season ended in December. They would be given ring-shaped cakes, which had a dry bean inside.Whichever slave found the bean was treated as a king for the day - giving the dish its name. When the practise was incorporated into a Christian tradition, it became associated with the Epiphany - when the three Kings came to give gifts to Jesus. These days, you might find a small gift, a coin, or a dry bean in your Roscón de Reyes. And, unlike days of old, if you get the bean, instead of being treated like a king, you’ll probably be the one paying for the dessert.
Although some Spanish families now give some presents on Christmas Day, the main day for gift-giving is January 6th. That means most Spanish kids will tell you it’s the three Kings who bring the presents - not Santa Claus.
On December 26th, children write their notes to the Kings to ask for the gifts they want. Then, on January 5th children will leave out some food like clementine oranges or nuts, and a glass of brandy, for the Kings - and even some water or food for the camels or donkeys they ride on. Kids also leave their shoes out on a windowsill or under the Christmas tree. If they’ve been good enough, then their presents are duly delivered into the shoes. But, if not, they’ll find they get coal instead.
Although the three Kings bring the presents in most areas of Spain, in the Basque country in northern Spain, gifts come courtesy of a character called Olentzero. He's usually shown as a fat man, dressed as a traditional Basque farmer, wearing a beret and smoking a pipe.
According to the ING International Christmas Survey, some 58% of people in Spain receive practical gifts at Christmas. This is significantly above the European average. Leisure gifts are received by 30% of people, with 24% getting cash or gift cards as presents. Interestingly, 83% of Spaniards - the highest percentage for any country surveyed - said that Christmas was too commercial,and should be less about gift giving.
According to survey data, Spanish people spend a median amount of €200 each over Christmas. This is quite a lot less than the British where the average spent tops €420. However, obviously the costs of Christmas are very dependant on personal choice and lifestyle, and the top Spanish spenders admitted to hitting closer to €500 per person over the period.
Spain is fairly unusual in that most industries offer a Christmas bonus, in the form of an additional paycheck. This is because most salaried jobs are paid in 14 installments - one paycheck a month, with the extra 2 being paid at the start of summer and just before Christmas, to make paying for gifts and holidays easier.
Whether or not you get yourself a nice Christmas bonus, it’s usually an expensive season. If you’re Spanish and living overseas, or one of the many expats living in Spain, you might find you need to send money home for gifts or to pay for the festive period. International money transfers placed through your regular bank or money transfer service are often advertised as free or cheap, but that’s simply not true. Nearly every bank and transfer service adds a markup to the exchange rate, which means you could be paying more than you should. So, if you need to move some cash to your overseas account, it pays to understand your options. You might find that your international transfer will be quicker and cheaper if you use a specialist service like TransferWise.
By using the real exchange rate, the same one you find on Google, there are no sneaky hidden charges with TransferWise. You pay the lowest possible fee, clearly shown upfront.
Another useful tool for expats and those who travel regularly, is the TransferWise borderless account. This flexible account lets you hold cash in several different currencies, including euros. You can make direct payments using the currencies you hold, receive local payments with local bank details in several different currencies, or simply exchange your funds using the real exchange rate with only a small transparent fee, whenever it suits you. You can see your balance across different currencies at a glance, and because you can exchange funds whenever you want, you don’t have to worry about any nasty surprises because of exchange rate fluctuations.
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Christmas starts in earnest around December 8th which is Día de la Inmaculada Concepción (Day of the Immaculate Conception). You’ll find that stores are full of Christmas goods from then onwards.
The other way you know Christmas is coming is thanks to the El Gordo lottery, drawn on December 22nd. The name literally means ‘the fat one’ - because of the huge volumes of money up for grabs. In fact, it’s the world’s richest lottery when it comes to prizes. In 2016, for the first time ever, all the biggest winning tickets happened to be sold from the same office in Madrid - meaning that one single neighbourhood won an amazing 2.6 billion euros, just in time for Christmas.
Important festive dates for Spain:
|Nochebuena (Christmas Eve)||24th December|
|Navidad (Christmas)||25th December (Public Holiday)|
|Dia de San Esteban (St Stephen’s Day)||26th December (Public Holiday in Catalonia only)|
|Día de los Santos Inocentes (Day of the Innocent Saints - similar to April Fool’s Day)||28th December|
|Nochevieja (New Year’s Eve)||31st December|
|Día de Año Nuevo (New Year’s Day)||1st January (Public Holiday)|
|Fiesta de Los tres Reyes Magos (Epiphany)||6th January (Public Holiday)|
If you’re an expat living in Spain, or simply visiting over the Christmas period for the first time, you’ll find lots of fascinating - and sometimes quirky - local traditions to make sure your experience is memorable. Get involved, and you’ll have a great time. Feliz Navidad!