Christmas In Spain

A brief look at some of the Christmas customs in Spain …

In Spain, Christmas begins on 22 December, the day of the fat lottery known as ‘el gordo’. It is a day of great hope, because most Spaniards play for a number or share thereof, and then wait with impatience for the outcome of ‘el gordo’ which can yield an enormous cash prize.

On Christmas Eve family members gather around the table to dine on seafood, meat, sweets … the most typical Christmas sweets being nougat, marzipan and shortbreads, which are placed in containers for offering to visitors. After dinner they sing Christmas carols and chat, the latter being something Spaniards are very good at! The most religious families usually attend the ‘Misa del Gallo’ or midnight mass.

Christmas Day on 25 December is celebrated with a special meal, as on Christmas Eve. After the meal, there is a toast with traditional Cava and the rest of the day is spent with family. Boxing Day or St Stephen’s Day is not an official holiday in most of Spain. However, 28 December is the day of Innocent Saints, a day of jokes, false news reporting and general fun. Think of April Fools’ Day but with more gusto!

Dinner on New Year’s Eve is a popular event but not as family-orientated as on Christmas Eve, being a time to spend with friends. A superstition followed by many people is the wearing of red underwear, because they believe it will bring them luck throughout the following year. People usually watch television, since at a quarter to midnight, broadcasts connect with the Puerta del Sol in Madrid where a clock strikes the twelve bells announcing the new year. With each stroke, a grape is eaten and when finished, revellers celebrate with Cava.  Afterwards, friends usually hold parties or gatherings that last all night, only ending as the first dawn of the new year breaks, at which point they eat chocolate and churros (a deep-fried choux pastry).

Onc again, New Year’s Day is a time for family gatherings and more food but so many suffer from hangovers from the night before that the occasion is often subdued. On the night of 5 January, the Three Wise Men arrive  It’s the day for children’s parties, who on the preceding days, have written letters saying what gifts they would like to receive. When the children wake up on the morning of 6 January, the Three Kings have already left all their gifts. Breakfast that morning is traditionally Roscón de Reyes, a ring-shaped sweet pastry cake with a small gift inside.

Although the tradition is for children to receive their presents on the feast of the Epiphany, more families are now giving their offspring some gifts at Christmas in line with the more common practice around the world.

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Semana Santa

Semana Santa (or Holy Week in English) is a major festival in Spain and celebrated in different ways throughout the country.

Rather than the Easter weekend itself, it is the week leading up to Easter that is celebrated here in Spain with both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday official public holidays. Most towns and many villages celebrate Holy Week in one way or another, ranging from small highly religious processions to lavish and ostentatious extravaganzas. One factor, however, is common to all events and that is the underlying gravitas and devotion to the Spaniards religious beliefs. Whilst there are some spectacular displays to be seen here in Andalucía, the nearest spectacle is staged in Lorca in the adjoining autonomous region of Murcia.

Semana Santa represents Spain’s brotherhoods’ processions and unique, age-old traditions specific to each region. There are several brotherhoods in Lorca, but the most important are the Blue (azul) and White (blanco) fraternities, both of which display vigorous rivalry. The procession takes place in the Avenida Juan Carlos I which is a long, straight street ideal for the spectacle of biblical and passionate processions, chariot races and floats depicting scenes from both the Old and New Testaments in which different historical characters are represented. Every character bears some relation to the life, passion and death of Christ, and the up swelling of Christianity as a major religion. As part of the procession, spectators will be rewarded with people dressed as Roman emperors, Egyptian troops, Roman gods in chariots and on horseback, and virgins adorned in lavish, rich embroidered robes. In fact, many of the costumes are outstanding because of their elaborate locally done gold and silk hand embroidery, as well as the various brotherhood banners. The procession embraces devotion by the brotherhoods by the chanting of Marian hymns and serenades as well as music played predominantly on drums and trumpets. Members of each brotherhood, dressed in their uniquely coloured and decorated robes, carry their religious statues which are adorned with flowers for the occasion. These statues are then displayed in local churches for the rest of the year.

Each brotherhood carries a huge float (paso) made from either wood or plaster, which display sculptures depicting different scenes from the gospels related to the Passion of Christ or the Sorrows of the Virgin Mary. Many of these floats are works of art by Spanish artists and some date back hundreds of years. They are huge structures and can take up to 150 people to carry them which is devotion in itself! On the more ostentatious side are huge floats adorned in gilt which depict different aspects of history including Cleopatra and the antiChrist.

Many of the participants in these processions will be seen wearing a penitential robe (nazareno) that comprises a tunic and a hood (capirote) with a pointed tip which fully conceals the face of the wearer. The use of these robes dates back to medieval times when penitents could show repentance without revealing their identity. Some people feel threatened by this garment as it is more recently associated with the anti-establishment Ku Klux Klan movement in the USA, but it has far greater religious significance. Dependant upon where the procession is taking place, nazarenos may carry processional candles or wooden crosses, be barefoot, or even carry shackles and chains on their feet to signify penance.

Regardless of religious viewpoints, the Semana Santa processions are not to be missed. Whilst the general atmosphere of the festivities is usually solemn, the grand processions are simply spectacular, yet simultaneously emotional. Spain knows how to party, however, and despite the underlying message of the Passion of Christ, it is a fun time and one easily becomes absorbed in the rivalry between the ‘blues’ and ‘whites’.

Next year, however, as a complete contrast, I’m looking forward to experiencing a re-enactment of the Passion staged by the inhabitants of a small village in Granada province.