Spain, Christmas in

Spain, Christmas in

In Spain, as in many other southern European countries, Easter is a more important holiday than Christmas. Nevertheless, the Spanish celebrate a joyous Christmas season, one that emphasizes food, family, and religious observance.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Some Spaniards consider the Christmas season to begin on December 8 with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This holiday honors the purity of Mary, Jesus' mother. In the city of Seville the festival is celebrated with the "Dance of the Sixes," which takes place in the city's cathedral. At the close of the service held in honor of the Immaculate Conception, elaborately costumed choirboys perform this dance in front of the altar, accompanied by a hymn.

Christmas Decorations

In early December Christmas markets appear in the main plazas of many Spanish cities. These markets sell Christmas decorations, ornaments, Nativity scene figurines, garlands of greenery, and Christmas trees.

The Spanish center their home celebrations of Christmas around the Nativity scene, which they call a nacimiento (literally, "birth") or a belén (which means "Bethlehem"). Nativity scenes also appear in churches and town squares around Christmas time. Children delight in recreating the home Nativity scene each year, often embellishing previous arrangements with new figurines, bits of moss, and other additions designed to add a touch of reality to the setting. In recent years Christmas trees also have become popular in some areas. Nevertheless, the Spanish cherish their Nativity scenes. True enthusiasts, called belenistas, join clubs dedicated to promoting and preserving Spanish crib-making traditions.

Christmas Foods

As Christmas draws nearer, Spanish housewives begin to stock up on various Christmas foods. Many people look forward to munching on roasted chestnuts during the Christmas season. Marzipan and turrón, a kind of nougat candy studded with nuts, are both favorite Christmas sweets.

All across Spain, housewives serve a variety of fish dishes on Christmas Eve. Many serve roast turkey for Christmas dinner on the following day. Spanish cooks sometimes bone the turkey before stuffing and cooking it. Turkey stuffing usually includes some kind of pork - either bacon, ham, or sausage - as well as mushrooms, nuts, and onions. Various kinds of wines, including sherry and champagne, may also be served with the holiday meal. Spanish cuisine varies from region to region, and so do traditional Christmas foods. In the northwestern region of Galicia, for example, Christmas dinner might feature a roast suckling pig.


Some lucky prisoners have their offenses pardoned on Christmas Eve. Prison officials and lawyers tour penitentiaries on December 24, reviewing cases and releasing those prisoners whose offenses seem excusable in some way.

Christmas Eve and Day

Spaniards spend Christmas Eve at home with their families. As the sky darkens some families place a lighted lamp in the window. Many also place lighted candles around the Nativity scene or around the family's shrine to the Virgin Mary. As is typical in Spain, dinner is not served until nine or ten o'clock. Afterwards, many people attend Midnight Mass.

Family celebrations continue on Christmas Day. The baby Jesus figurine is finally placed in the Nativity scene crib. Some families have adopted the practice of exchanging gifts on Christmas Day. Traditionally, however, only children received Christmas gifts, brought to them by the Three Kings on January 6, Epiphany. Singing Christmas carols is another favorite Christmas Day activity. Ordinarily, the main meal of the day is a late lunch served around two in the afternoon. Accordingly, Spaniards serve a large Christmas dinner in the middle of the afternoon on Christmas Day.

Holy Innocents' Day

Spaniards celebrate December 28, Holy Innocents' Day, in much the same way Americans celebrate April Fools' Day, by playing practical jokes on one another. Children's parties and games are also held on this day. Although Innocents' Day commemorates a bloody event, folk customs associated with this day are fun and frivolous.

New Year's Eve

Spaniards celebrate New Year's Eve a few days later, on December 31. Many families eat pork on New Year's Eve, since the pig is considered a good-luck symbol for the coming year. As family members wait for the clock to strike midnight, twelve grapes are distributed to each person present. Everyone then attempts to eat one grape for each stroke of the clock as it chimes midnight. Although eating twelve grapes in twelve seconds may be uncomfortable, the rewards are worth it. According to Spanish folk belief, each of the twelve grapes will sweeten the corresponding month of the new year. After the stroke of midnight many people go out on the town. The rest of the evening may be spent at bars, nightclubs, or parties that last until the wee hours of the morning.


The Spanish refer to Epiphany as Día de los Tres Reyes, or "Three Kings Day." In the weeks preceding Three Kings Day, children write letters to the Wise Men, or Magi, letting them know about the gift they would like to receive (see also Children's Letters). In the old days families would gather at the edge of town hoping to offer their children a glimpse of the Magi on their journey. Somehow, the townsfolk never guessed correctly which road the Wise Men would take. Upon returning to town, however, the disappointed children often discovered that the Wise Men had arrived by another route and were waiting for them at the Nativity scene in the town's central plaza.

Nowadays, many Spanish cities hold elaborate parades on Epiphany Eve to welcome the Three Kings as they pass through town on their way to Bethlehem. Parents take their children to these parades so that the little ones can see the splendidly robed Magi riding high atop an elaborate float. The Kings wave kindly to the crowd and, more importantly, toss sweets to the children.

Upon returning home from excursions such as these, children leave their shoes in a place where the Wise Men are sure to find them, often on a balcony, just outside the front door, or by the fireplace. They usually leave a bit of straw for the Magi's camels as well. In the morning they find the shoes filled with trinkets and sweets. One old tradition recommended that parents brush their children's cheeks with coal or ashes as they slept on Epiphany Eve. When the children discovered the mark in the morning, the parents told them it meant that Balthasar, the black king, had stooped down to kiss them while they were asleep.

The Three Kings only bring presents to children. In recent years Santa Claus has become increasingly popular in Spain, and so has the custom of adults exchanging Christmas presents with one another.

Further Reading

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. McLenighan, Valjean. Christmas in Spain. Chicago: World Book, 1988. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003