Christmas in Spain begins the weekend of December 8th on the day of the “Inmaculada” Saint. As Christmas is predominantly a religious holiday in Spain, despite the recent adoption of more western traditions, the days building up to the birth of Jesus and the gift of the Magi are still a time for veneration. If you’re ever in Madrid for this season, and you want to celebrate as the locals do, this guide will help you truly feel, eat and celebrate like a Madrileño!
On December 8th, Spaniards from the surrounding pueblos make a pilgrimage to the city center to revel in a time honored tradition, which hardly changes from year to year. The first stop is Puerta del Sol, or kilometer zero, the true center of Madrid where all radial networks of Spanish roads begin. Here there are two important events that everyone must partake in: the first is visiting the giant Christmas tree in the middle of the square, and the second, is buying your lottery ticket. Spaniards love playing the lottery “Sorteo de Navidad“, which became an official yearly tradition in 1812, when the first national lottery began. On December 22nd, the whole country paralyzes, waiting with bated breath to see who has the winning ticket. People go crazy buying “decimos”, a tenth of the value of the entire sum, a ticket that you can purchase in bars, stores or on the street. Everyone has their favorite place to purchase their ticket, and the luckiest stores, with the most annual wins, have their representatives in Puerta del Sol, “Doña Manolita” for Castilians and “La Bruixa D’Or” for Catalans. Lines can be very long, and may take hours, but nowhere can the true patience of a Spaniard be tested than in this phenomenon. Sellers with their tickets are granted a space throughout the square, with customers returning year after year, hoping to have some previous winner’s luck rub off on them.
After you’ve purchased your lottery ticket, it’s time for a bite to eat. December is THE month to eat shellfish and fish, and people flock to one of the city’s busiest spots right behind the Puerta del Sol, Casa Labra. This is a tiny bar, founded in 1860 and specializing in “Bacalao” (Codfish), has throngs of people wait in line to order the “Croquetas de Bacalao” (croquettes) or “Tajada de Bacalao” (Crispy, battered cod). Simple, yet perfectly cooked and made to order, its standing room only. If you’re here with kids, Christmas must include a visit to Cortylandia. Cortylandia is a musical and light installation that El Corte Ingles, Spain’s largest and only department store, offers every year. Around the corner from Casa Labra, people gather at certain times of the day and night to witness this production that kids absolutely adore. Every year has a different theme, so that way they can come back and never see the same show twice.
A few short blocks away from Puerta del Sol is Plaza Mayor. Here in the city’s main square is where you will find the Christmas market. Everything from trees, mistletoe, lights and most importantly, nativity scene figurines are purchased are sold year after year. Interestingly, Spaniards didn’t include a tree in their festivities, but in recent years, it’s become more popular. As true Catholics celebrating the birth of Christ, the centerpiece at home is the Nativity Scene (Belén). The nativity can be simple to extremely elaborate, complete with water fountains, mangers with the animals, working lanterns and fireplaces, everything to create Bethlehem in miniature. When we first moved to Spain, my daughter was amazed at a friend’s Nativity. Every day, she would move the magi closer to the manger, following the star taking it closer to the baby Jesus. Annually, Spaniards tend to purchase a new piece for their nativity scene, much like we may buy a new ornament for our trees. In Plaza Mayor, and just like in most central city squares all over Spain, there is a life-size Nativity Scene that everyone comes to enjoy. But Madrid does it a little better. Here, people not only go to Plaza Mayor, but they do the “route”. All over the city there are nativity scenes, and the local tourist office offers guided tours to see each and every one.
Now that you’ve done all your shopping, and visits to the Christmas landmarks, it’s time to do what Spaniards do best: eat! Madrid is a fantastic place for tapas, but the holiday season is when people come to eat the “non plus ultra” of Madrid’s favorite sandwich: the “Bocata de Calamares” or fried squid sandwich. Yes, you can eat this all year round, but December is when locals come to have not one, but a few of the city’s favorite snack. Traversing through the windy medieval streets on a “tapeo” to a few different bars, they savor a good beer alongside the ubiquitous sandwich. Bar Postas is a regular favorite, yet my favorite is La Campana. After you’ve filled up on salty goodness, it’s time for some sweets, and the best place to go is La Mallorquina, where you can enjoy a “merienda” or afternoon snack. The merienda might consist of a coffee and a sweet, such as a turron, polvoron or mazapan (marzipan). Turrones are traditionally made of almonds, but you can now find a slew of different varieties, from chocolate to egg yolk. Polvorones are butter cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar, literally translated as “dusty cookies” because of their crumbliness. This is a pre-sampling of what you are going to take home with you, as every home in Spain features their “Cesta de Dulces” (basket of sweets).
The weeks leading up to December 24th are busy ones, full of office parties and friends getting together. At around 12 pm on December 24th, people get off work (if they haven’t already) and celebrate with a true “tapeo”. Without a specific destination in mind, co-workers hit the city streets, generally close to work, for a long afternoon of tapas and Cava. By the time the afternoon rolls around, it’s time for a siesta to prepare for the dinner feast. Dinner on the 24th is a very solemn affair, celebrated with immediate family and a dinner that is steeped in tradition. The three things that cannot be left off of the Christmas table is shellfish, lamb and pastries. Beginning with a “Sopa de Mariscos” or shellfish soup, Spaniards follow up with platters of boiled shrimp with mayonnaise, Crabs, Percebes (gooseneck clams), Cigalas (Norwegian lobster) and Centollo (Spider Crab). Angulas (baby eel) used to be found on most tables, but due to steep prices, they’ve become a rarity. Onto the main dish, tables are plated with roast leg of lamb or baked fish, a delicacy typically not enjoyed year round. And like most cultures around the world, dinner is followed by the pastry basket, a sugar high to help build strength for “La Misa del Gallo” or midnight Mass. The mass consists of quiet prayer and venerating the upcoming birth of Christ. In church, there is also a nativity scene, yet the cradle is empty because Jesus hasn’t been ‘born’ yet. This is reserved for Mass on Christmas morning, when you head back to church to sing hymns and kiss the baby Jesus, who was born overnight! After mass, you head to a family’s home where feast on leftovers from the night before, or “Cochinillo” (roast suckling pig), with all the shellfish trimmings and pastries. Only the most “progressive” and non-traditional families open presents today, as gift giving here in Spain is reserved for the 6th of January; and it isn’t Santa bringing the gifts, it is the Magi.
The Epiphany, or as it’s known here, “Reyes” (Kings Day), is when Spain celebrates the birth of Jesus. In every city throughout Spain, and the surrounding towns, people prepare for the biggest parade of the year, “La Cavalcada de Los Reyes Magos” (the cavalcade of the Three Kings) which happens on the 5th. Sauntering into town on a camel in an elaborate parade, the Three Kings toss candy down to the excited children below. If they are extremely lucky, they get to ride on the floats with the kings too! The 5th of January is a really busy shopping day too, with stores opening until midnight to accommodate for people getting off work and flocking to the stores to buy their gifts. The next morning, is the culmination of the 12 days of Christmas, and all the gifts are opened, but most kids also receive “Carbon”, the lump of coal made from sugar, to remind them that they weren’t all “that good”! The rest of the day is spent going to family and friends’ houses doling out their gifts, and today you eschew cooking and eat out! After lunch though, it’s back to someone’s house to eat the “Roscon de Reyes” or King´s Cake. Kings cake is a circular brioche type cake, with candied fruit and sugar on top. Hidden inside the cake is a little baby Jesus or Virgin Mary figurine and a fava bean; whoever finds the figurine gets to be the “king” for the day, complete with crown, and the unlucky person who finds the bean gets to pay for the cake! I am sure most Americans will be thinking, that this whole tradition sounds very much like our own Mardi Gras, which indeed is a continuation of the celebration of Epiphany up to Lent.
All in all, Christmas is a beautiful season here, and around the world. I have come to adopt some of the Spanish traditions myself, having lived here for 11 and half years, and I think it has truly enriched our home. So, if next year you find yourself hankering for some Spanish Christmas and you plan a visit, I hope this guide helps you out in finding interesting things to do. But if you can’t make it to Spain, why not bring some to your holiday table? My favorite cookie is “Polvorones”, and you can find the recipe below.
Makes about 12:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp. ground almonds
½ cup lard
½ cup sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
Grated lemon zest
1/3 cup powdered sugar
Pre-heat the oven to 325F. On a baking tray, place the flour and bake in the oven for about 5 minutes, just until it is golden. Take out and place the flour in a bowl, set aside. Now put the ground almonds in the same baking sheet, and toast in the oven for about 10 minutes, or until golden brown.
When the flour has cooled down, make a volcano shape, and then add the ground almonds, lard, sugar, cinnamon and grated lemon zest. Mix well until you get a compact and smooth paste. Let it rest 10 minutes.
Now on a clean work surface, roll out your dough to about an inch thick. Use a round cookie or biscuit mold and cut out the dough, placing it on a cool cookie sheet, spaced about an inch apart.
Bake for about 5-6 minutes, then place on a cookie rack to let cool. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Keeps 3-4 days in an airtight container.