For expats, Christmas often provides the biggest culture shock of the whole emigré experience. Yuletide customs vary greatly from country to country, as anyone who’s sampled a festive beachside barbecue in Australia or South Africa can attest.
Christmas in Spain doesn’t provide quite as big a contrast for those weaned on the mulled wine and roaring fires of northern Europe, but its year-round sunshine and relaxed, Mediterranean vibe still create a very different scene in late December. If you’ve grown up dreaming of a white Christmas, you’re unlikely to find one in most parts of Spain; if you’re in the south, it’ll probably be warm enough to step outside in a t-shirt. And there are other things to get your head round, too.
For one thing, turkey will probably be off the menu. Spanish Christmas meals vary from region to region, from langoustines in Madrid to canelons in Catalonia. For another, things tend to start a bit later. If you want to go out to celebrate the Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) or Nochevieja (New Years’ Eve) you’ll find most bars don’t open until after midnight. And then the biggest mind-melt of all: in Spain you’ve got two present-giving days, not one. Historically Spanish families doled out their presents on January 6, El Día De Los Reyes Magos (the Day of the Three Wise Men), but the growing influence of Anglo-Saxon culture means many now give presents on Christmas Day, too. For parents, it can all get very expensive.
But don’t worry, other Spanish Christmas traditions are rather more familiar. In every town and village you’ll find Christmas lights, roasted chestnuts and nativity scenes (known as the belen viviente, or ‘living Bethlehem’). The night of December 24 sees families line the streets to sing carols, and the experience is just as cockle-warmingly merry as it is in northerly countries — even though there’s usually less chill in the air.
In this blog, we’ll explain some of the key Christmas traditions in each of Spain’s major expat communities. We can’t promise that Santa Claus will visit you and your loved ones this year, but we can help you to make the most of your first Festive period in your new Iberian surroundings.
Christmas in Spain: Madrid
If you’re moving from abroad, Madrid is probably the closest you’ll get to the Christmases you’ve left behind. With its stately, cosmopolitan architecture and demure vibe, the city provides all the genteel charm of a Christmas in London, Paris or Berlin. What’s more, it gets pretty cold in the winter and is one of the few places in Spain you might get snow.
Madrid is famed throughout Spain for its Christmas markets, and the one in Plaza Mayor is an absolute must-see. For those with families who love the city center, we’d also recommend checking out Cortylandia, a giant Christmas fair in front of the Corte Inglés department store, a stone’s throw from Plaza Mayor. You’ll find a full cast of animatronic, anthropomorphic animals singing Christmas carols in a scene sure to delight the little ones.
Then there’s one of the most Spanish Christmas traditions of all, one which is actually much older than it sounds: the annual lottery on December 22. The first draw was held way back in the 19th century and even survived the years of civil war and dictatorship. Now the prize draw is held at the Royal Theatre in the Plaza de Isabel II, and you’ll find the area teeming with families as the draw is made, all desperate to win ‘El Gordo’ (The Fat One) or at least be part of the experience.
Christmas in Spain: Catalonia
Nowhere in Spain is more closely associated with the Christmas lottery than Catalonia — or, more specifically, the mountainous town of Sort. Since time immemorial this rustic enclave has been revered for its magical properties (the name translates to ‘Luck’ in English) and lottery-players flock to Sort every year in the hope that some of the good fortune will rub off on them. Last year the town’s lottery administrators sold one of the main prizes, only increasing its fame.
However, as one might expect from such a staunchly parochial people, the Catalans also have their very own way of celebrating Christmas. Instead of sending letters to Santa on Christmas Eve, kids are encouraged to whack a block of wood known as Caga Tio, which literally translates to ‘Poo Log’. Caga Tio apparently dates back to Roman times, when logs of fire provided essential warmth in the middle of winter, and is still enthusiastically celebrated all over Catalonia. Parents paint their log with a human face, wrap it in a blanket to hide the presents and then tell their kids to smack the wood with their own sticks until it, er, secretes its gifts.
But don’t worry, you don’t have to copy this rather mucky tradition. You can imbibe the Catalan Christmas spirit simply by browsing one of the many markets which spring up in central Barcelona in mid-December. The oldest, the fair of Saint Llucia, dates back to the late 18th century and takes place in the Gothic Quarter, a short walk from Placa Catalunya and Las Ramblas. We’d also recommend the market at the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s iconic cathedral, and Poble Espanyol, a giant model town dedicated to Spanish culture. At each of these markets you can buy trees, chocolates, nativity figures and even caganers – figurines of famous people on the toilet (you might have guessed what ‘caga’ means by now).
These markets draw the great and the good from across Barcelona, and are particularly popular with foreigners basking in the spacious villas on the outskirts of the city. But there are plenty of attractions outside the regional capital, too. In Sitges, the holiday town a short drive down the coast, visitors flock to the annual Winter Market, a mecca for craft-lovers which showcases the best in local artisanal design. If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the nearby beachside villas, you’ll find all manner of trinkets and accessories to give your home the hand-crafted touch. Els Pastorets (The Shepherds), a theatrical show which depicts the birth of Jesus through the eyes of those who tended to him, is also well worth a look.
If you’re based up the coast in the area around Girona, you’ll find the weather is much colder and people tend to wrap up in coats and gloves — a familiar sight for anyone from the UK! Not that the chill keeps people inside, of course; the Gironese are raised on a diet of running, riding and golf, and theirs is very much an outdoor Christmas. With a quick Google search you can join one of the various fun-runs that are held over the Christmas period, and those with kids would be well-advised to check out the Palace of Ferias, which is kitted out with its own tobogganing and ice-skating rink. For something more laid-back, take a trip to the Christmas Fair in Girona’s Independence Square, which has all the glamor and variety of its counterparts in Barcelona.
Christmas in Spain: The Balearic Islands
Technically, the Balearics are part of Catalonia. They share the same local language and many of the same cultural traditions. But, at Christmas, this sun-drenched archipelago has a Festive charm all of its own.
Nowhere is more charming than Ibiza, an island which may be more famous for summer hedonism than snuggly winter warmth but comes alive during the Festive period. Even though temperatures can reach 16 degrees, the sort of warmth you might get in the UK in May or June, the Ibizan community still put up Christmas lights, an ice rink (which somehow manages to avoid melting) and even a huge funfair called Diverespai, full of rides and activities for kids to burn off their festive indulgence.
Yet perhaps the most charming Christmas event of all is the Cabalgata de Reyes (Wise Men’s Parade) on January 5. Held on the eve of the Reyes celebrations, the cabalgata is one of the most iconic of all Spanish Christmas traditions, celebrated across the country, but Ibiza’s maritime setting adds a beauty all of its own. The ‘Wise Men’ begin their parade by disembarking from a boat, lit up with Christmas decorations, in a scene which never fails to wow the legions of children in attendance.
In Mallorca and Menorca, the festivities are just exuberant. Mallorcans have a plethora of fetes and markets to choose from, of which our personal favorite is the Fira de la Llet d’Ametla (Fair of the Almond Milk) in mid-December, a giant food fair which draws artesan producers from all over the island. Menorca has plenty of markets of its own and we’d also recommend the illuminations in the town of Ciutadella, as beautiful as any you’ll find on the Spanish mainland.
Christmas in Spain: Valencia
The city of Valencia is one of Spain’s fastest-growing metropoli, revered for its chic, understated urban living and soaring summer temperatures. But it’s long had a unique way of celebrating Christmas, too. In fact, in the not-too-distant times, families would gather for an entire week of merry-making, culminating in the slaughter of a pig – a tradition which, mercifully, has faded over time.
Of course, those expats living in Valencia’s modernist apartments and idyllic beachside villas will still find plenty to do during the Festive season. The huge Christmas fair, which runs right the way through December and January, is great for families. Alternatively there’s the Expojove (or youth expo), packed with kid-friendly games and concerts.
For those who just fancy a spot of sight-seeing, the city hall is a riot of lights and colors when mid-December rolls around, and you can stroll around any number of Christmas fairs. We’d also recommend you check out the goodies available in two of Valencia’s famous chocolate shops, Santa Catalina and Chocolates Valor.
Christmas in Spain: Marbella
As we said at the top, Christmas in Spain can be a wee bit tropical for those who’ve grown up in Europe’s frozen north. But with a huge expat community, drawn by its immaculate golf resorts and pristine poolside penthouses, Marbella has long played host to a typically northern Christmas despite its balmy climate, providing a sunny spin on many Spanish Christmas traditions. Anyone who’s visited the city’s Fiesta del Invierno (Winter Party) on December 17, a non-stop carousel of events for kids and adults alike, can testify to the marbelleros’ festive spirit.
From the Plaza de los Naranjos (Square of the Orange Trees), which erupts in a riot of color when mid-December rolls around, to the giant, conical illumination known as the Alumbrado, Malaga is transformed for Christmas. We’d definitely advise you to head to the Parque de la Alameda for a Christmas lights show. Or, if you fancy a change of pace, you can head down to the beach to sign hymns – a Spanish Christmas tradition you definitely couldn’t attempt back home.