Rather refreshingly, Spain doesn’t seem to start gearing up for Christmas until they get into the month of December. It’s not the huge commercial circus that it is in the US and the UK; the lights and decorations won’t be seen until the beginning of the festive month December and gradually Christmas markets start to appear and trees can be bought in the streets.
It’s also worth noting that Spain is largely a Roman catholic nation so the festivities still hold important religious
connotations, the first date of note is December 8th, Immaculada (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), this really kicks of the start of the religious celebrations. The holiday period really begins on December 22nd when all of Spain tunes into the television or radio to hear the results of “El Gordo”, a huge lottery draw that will see thousands of great prizes dished out to winners from all over the country.
Christmas Eve is a huge family day in Spain and is known as “Nochebuena”. A massive meal will be prepared for what is the biggest feast of the year and the most important family gathering. Fish and shellfish are usually the starters, followed by a roast such as lamb or a suckling pig and desert is the traditional marzipan or Turran (an almond based sweet very popular in Spain). Cava is typically the drink of choice at this time of year. It is also customary for adults to exchange their presents on “Nochebuena” and although the kids may get a small gift, they will have to wait until they get their presents. After the dinner the majority of people will then go to midnight mass, known in Spain as “La Misa de gallo” (the Mass of the Rooster).
Every town, church and, very often, home will have a “Belen” (a nativity scene) at this time of year and some are extremely large and impressive. Sometimes they will be set up in a town square with real actors to form a life-sized recreation of the nativity. These scenes form an important part of the Christmas celebrations to Spaniards and are repeated throughout much of Latin America.
Christmas Day itself is one of the quietest of the year in Spain. As in most of the western world it is a public holiday
and all shops, banks etc will be shut for the day, more and more families now observe the tradition of going out to a restaurant for a meal. There certainly isn’t a great deal in the way of unbridled celebration as tend to be the case in the UK and US.
The children don’t even receive their presents on this day, they are made to wait until January 6th, Epiphany, when the three kings brought their gifts to Christ. Rather than Santa, it’s the three Kings who are the heroes and in particular, Balthasar, who is said to leave them their presents. Traditional cakes called “Rosca de Reyes” are typically eaten on this day. Much like putting coins in Christmas pudding in England, the cakes are baked with plastic charms in them and are said to bring a lucky year for those who find them.