During Christmas the homes and streets of Spain are filled with decorative elements that remind us that the holidays are here. Learn more about it.
When December arrives, the air gets charged with a strange energy that inspires us to renew contact with distant relatives, with friends we haven’t seen in a long time… the holiday season is upon us. In Spain we use the word Pascuas, in the plural, to refer to the days that revolve around Christmas, the Christian commemoration of the birth of Jesus. For many, Christmas is a holiday for religious reflection, while for others it’s simply a time for celebrating a joyful holiday with the family. The Christmas holidays in Spain begins on December 24th, Christmas Eve Day, then it continues through Christmas Day (December 25th), the day of los Santos Inocentes (Innocent Saint’s Day, December 28th), New Year’s Eve (December 31st), and finally crescendos into its grand finale on King’s Day Eve (January 5th) and King’s Day (January 6th).
During this time of year, the homes and streets of Spain are filled with decorative elements that remind us that the holidays are here. Globalization, an unstoppable and unavoidable phenomenon, has caused Spaniards to assimilate certain customs, especially related to decorative aspects, which although are foreign have absorbed many Hispanic elements.
The first thing we observe in Spain during the holiday season is the large number of lights that decorate the streets of the towns and cities. In some areas, festive decor is not limited to just lighting; strategically placed loud speakers, hidden from view as well as possible, may also fill the holiday atmosphere with Christmas carols. Another must-have feature of the season is the omnipresent Christmas flower the poinsettia, which in warm-climate areas, such as in the south of the peninsula, the coast of Levante or in the Canary Islands, grows to considerable size.
When we get home and open the door, the first thing that catches our attention is the tray on the table in the entrance, full of sweets that are customary at this time of year: alfores (an almond and honey confection), marzipan, sugared almonds, candied fruit, and of course the fundamental varieties of turron: the hard and soft types and perhaps some of the more innovative and tantalizing forms we’ve found on supermarket shelves. In some small cities and towns, this temptingly sweet treat can even be found on offer in banks and in some stores… so that sweet tooths can sweeten their wait by snacking on a little holiday flavor.
In one corner of the living room, the kids have begun installing the nativity scene, a type of panoramic reproduction of the setting of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. The nativity scene generally features a series of elements and figures (some scenes also reflect a certain custom or local tradition): the manger with figurines of Joseph, the Virgin Mary, the baby Jesus in his straw bed flanked by a mule and an ox, and an angel above it all announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. It’s also important that the castle of King Herodias (the bad guy) appear in the distance. The castle can be made of cork or wood painted to look like stone, women washing clothes and a person fishing may stand next to an aluminum foil river… A road runs next to the river (perhaps made of bread crumbs) on which the three wise men make their way towards the manger. The kids are in charge of moving the magi forward a little bit each day until the night of January 5th, when they finally reach the stable where the sacred family is. In Catalonia and Valencia, an absolutely essential nativity scene figure is one known as the Caganer: a person dressed in traditional rustic attire who is, hidden in some corner of the scene, crouched down responding to nature’s call. Finding him is a challenge for observers, and the tradition, dating back to the 18th century, probably symbolizes the fertilization of the earth, converting him into a symbol of good luck, his absence of which provokes the opposite.
The Christmas tree has also become widely popular, which is decorated with colorful ornaments, lights and garland and placed in a lighted corner of the Spanish living room. This tree was originally a symbol of fertility in Northern Europe. Today however, most homes have one (a real tree or a more or less realistic imitation).
Balconies, windows, and terraces are decorated with figures of Papá Noel (Santa Claus, another holiday season import), the three kings, or in the Basque country and Navarra, the Olentzero, a coal merchant who has emerged from the forest to bring gifts to the children.
One peculiar Spanish Christmas decoration is produced on December 28th, Innocent Saints Day (the equivalent to April Fool’s Day in many cultures). On this day, it seems you need eyes in the back of your head, as most likely someone is going to try to pin a paper cut-out of a man onto your back: it’s the most traditional of practical jokes, and the paper doll is an icon of Spanish humor.
New Year’s Eve is celebrated outside the home, and the fireworks set off just after the midnight bell ringing (with the 12 uvas de la suerte, a tradition requiring revelers to consume one grape per bell chime) are the most striking characteristic of this fiesta.
Finally, on the night of January 5th, shoes that have been well cleaned sit next to the windows of Spanish homes, awaiting the arrival of Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar (the three wise men), who will bring toys to the good kids and coal (made of sugar) to the naughty ones. A Cabalgata de Reyes (wise men parade) is celebrated in almost all Spanish cities and towns on the day of the fifth, where children and parents/grandparents wait in wide-eyed anticipation as the three wise men approach, bringing presents that each child has requested in a letter.
After a sleepless night and a Three Kings Day full of children running around playing with their new gifts, it’s time to return to the old daily grind. On January 7th we must go back to work, to the office or to school, exhausted after this eventful time of year which is so special, especially for the kids.