Christmas is a deeply religious occasion in Spain. The country’s patron saint is the Virgin Mary and the Christmas season officially begins on December 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
For those of you planning to spend Christmas in Spain, you will find it is a far less commercialised affair to what you have become used to in latter years in the UK. Unlike, in the UK where the build up has already begun, the shops don’t actually start filling up the Christmas stock until December and you certainly won’t find a tree in anybody’s house until the second half of December.
I can understand the urgency to create a festive feeling early in the UK. Imagine the grimness of winter without the glow of shop windows, and the exciting countdown to the celebrations. Christmas shopping in Spain just doesn't give you the same buzz as in UK. September to December can be a pretty mundane time of year and we certainly need those mini festivals such as Halloween and Bonfire Night to keep us going until Christmas. This year will be my second Christmas in Spain and I kind of miss doing it the UK way. However, what I certainly won’t miss is that huge anti-climax feeling that you experience post Christmas as we endure the drudgery waiting for spring.
The main difference between a Spanish Christmas and the UK version is the importance of the feast of the Epiphany on the 6th January. This is the day that the Three Kings arrived in Bethlehem, on horseback. In Spain this is when presents are given and the three "magic" kings, not Father Christmas give the children presents. Parents encourage their children to write to the Three Kings, in the same way that ours write to Father Christmas. It is on this day, that people gather in the town’s streets to watch the cavalcades of the Three Kings in all their glory, throwing sweets for all the children. In recent years many families have started to give their children their presents on Christmas Eve because children have to go to school on the 7th January and they don't have time to play with their new toys.
Spanish Christmas is known as Navidad. It is still regarded as a time to go to church and of course, exchange presents. Christmas Eve is known as Nochebuena, “the Good Night”. Families usually gather around Nativity scenes (a belen) in their own homes. The meal eaten on Christmas Eve is one of the most important meals of the year. Seafood is widely eaten and families often hang a ‘pata de jamon’ in their kitchen and slice off cuts of cold ham over the Christmas period. You won’t be eating mince pies at Christmas in Spain; here you find cupboards stacked with Polverones, a cake/biscuit made with almonds, flour, and sugar, and turron, similar to nougat, made with toasted, sweet almonds.
If you are thinking of spending Christmas in Spain, it is far less stressful than in the UK as there is hardly any hype, think UK Christmas in the seventies. However, for children it is probably not anywhere near as exciting as in the UK. Everything closes down over Christmas and you don’t have the Boxing Day sales to escape from the house to. As Spanish television is pretty dire, even for us who can speak and understand Spanish, my recommendation would be make sure you have satellite television installed, bring some new DVDs and some family board games, oh and don’t forget the Sainsbury’s mince pies for festive homesickness.