As the midnight hour nears on the night of December 31st
, Spaniards have already had dinner with their families, and unlike Christmas Eve traditions that call on family members to stay at home together, tonight everyone will be hitting the town dressed to the nines. They’ll be carrying a bottle of cava or cider — the most chic may have champagne — and a package containing one of the ritualistic elements essential to celebrating the Spanish New Year: 12 grapes, las doce uvas de la suerte
. In the main square of every city and town, anxious crowds huddle together to stay warm as they gaze up the clocktower or church clock, watching as the two hands slowly make their way towards forming a perfect vertical line.
First, the clock bells strike what’s known as the fourths, los cuartos
— it’s important not to confuse these with the bells that mark the beginning of the New Year (no celebrating yet!). As los cuartos
announce the approach of midnight, hearts are racing and all eyes are glued the clock. Finally, the first bell chime resonates, and like an anthropological ballet, hands all across the country carry the first grape to the lips. This perfectly synchronized ritual is repeated each time the bell chimes until all 12 grapes have been eaten. Only then are calls of “¡Feliz Año Nuevo!
” heard as folks hug and kiss one another — it doesn’t matter if you actually know the other person — as they wish each other the best for the New Year.
Of course there are those that prefer (or have to) celebrate this custom somewhere else: at home, in the emergency room, or at the fire station on call for the night, for example. But without fail, anyone who’s not in the main square will be in front of the TV, which will inevitably be showing the emblematic center of this fiesta, the most important clock on New Year’s Eve: the clock at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid,
Spain’s kilometer 0. No matter where they are, most Spaniards wouldn’t dream of skipping the grape ritual to say goodbye to the old year and welcome the new.
The tradition of celebrating New Year’s Eve by eating 12 grapes probably originated in 1909, when Vinalopó grape producers in Alicante promoted consumption of the fruit due to overproduction. There are documents that show that the upper classes in Madrid already practiced this custom as far back as 1896, but the overproduction in 1909 and the resulting fall in grape prices was probably what helped it spread to the other social classes. However it started, the tradition has fully taken root and is followed today in homes and squares across Spain.
After having the 12 grapes, often followed by firework displays
, New Year’s festivities continue with celebrations organized by bars, clubs, and other private establishments, or, where the weather permits, outdoor parties in town squares. These celebrations continue all night long.
As we’ve said, the most traditional thing to do on the night of December 31st is to guzzle down your grapes at Puerta de Sol in Madrid. However, if you don’t like crowds, or if you already have plans, or if for whatever reason you don’t feel like going to Sol for New Year’s Eve, you can take part in another, more recent tradition: the practice runs.
Logically, an event that’s broadcasted by all the Spanish TV channels (each network even has their own traditions, from repeat hosts to specific outfits) has to be perfect the first time around. That’s why the clockmakers in charge of the famous clock in Puerta del Sol carry out at least three practice runs to make sure the bells are working properly. Each time, curious onlookers gather in the square to listen to the 12 bell chimes and eat some sort of grape substitute… you see, the grapes only bring good luck if they’re eaten at midnight on the 31st.
Candy and nuts are the most common substitutes for the famous grapes. The practice runs at noon on December 30 and 31 are relatively low key, but the midnight run-through on the 30th draws quite a crowd and has become a lively New Year’s Eve Eve party.
In some places such as Pamplona, Coín (in Malaga), and Nájera (in La Rioja), a special celebration is emerging on New Year’s Eve in which partygoers dress up in costumes to celebrate as if it were carnival
Salamanca, with a student population that is impressive in terms of numbers and vitality, has also created a new tradition: La Nochevieja Universitaria
(University New Year’s Eve). It all began in 2008, when some students weren’t willing to enjoy New Year’s without their friends from school and began celebrating it on the last Thursday before winter break. This student New Year’s has become one of the city’s popular festivals, and it has even spread to other cities such as Zamora, where it is also a great success.
Another unusual tradition began in a little town in the Alpujarra Granadina called Bércules. This village, located on the southern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, had a power outage during New Year’s Eve in 1994 and were unable to celebrate as planned. But if there’s one verb Spaniards know how to conjugate, it’s improvisar
: you guessed it, they improvised! Since the unforeseen event deprived residents of their eagerly anticipated celebrations, they simply postponed the party, throwing it months later, on the first weekend in August. In the years that followed, New Year’s Eve in August has become tourist attraction for Bérchules — over the weekend, the population balloons from 800 to 10,000.
Let’s wrap up with the best way to top off your Spanish New Year’s Eve: chocolate con churros
! The hot, sweet drink will warm you up and make you pleasantly sleepy, while the churros will help absorb any excess champagne you might have in your stomach. That said, we don’t recommend this snack if you’re celebrating New Year’s Eve in Bérchules!
¡Feliz Año Nuevo!