Chrismas in Spain, or rather December in Spain, referred to as Las Navidades, is a month full of family, friends and overall debauchery. The people are absolutely giddy over vacation, presents, company Christmas parties, family time, and of course, drinks and wine.
I’ve just finished my second Christmas in Spain and it was nothing short of a seam bursting, family-filled, joyously exhausting buffet for three weeks. Yes, three weeks. Okay, maybe the buffet part is a bit of an exaggeration but with the richness of all the food, drink, and dessert one meal could easily stay with you for two days. And for those who cannot help themselves (me) when trays of shrimp, plates of Iberian ham, blocks of sheep cheese, Extremadura’s very own Torta del Casar, and baskets of bread are laid out in front of them it’s a recipe for some intestinal hardships in the following days.
The Spanish don’t generally celebrate December 25th the way we often do in the U.S. The 25th is Jesus’ birthday, and the 24th is what’s called Nochebuena. Or affectionately (and after experiencing it twice, I must say, accurately) translated by my students, The Good Night. The Good Night, or Christmas Eve, is celebrated most traditionally with getting dressed up, going out to bars with family and friends to get a solid holiday buzz, then attending a big family dinner around nine or ten.
I say big for two reasons: Generally, many Spanish families still retain a massive amount of people due to the population boom in the 50’s and 60’s so it’s quite common that people from my generation have at least five aunts or uncles, all of whom have a spouse and one to three children. Last year, there was 35 of us packed into one 10 by 25 room; And two, because you know what I mentioned above about the trays of shrimp and all that? Yeah, well, those are just the appetizers. After this comes the main course, of course. This year we were treated with roasted red peppers stuffed with cod and drizzled with a tomato and red pepper sauce. We also had pork loin fillets with an apple chutney sauce. So rich. Muy rico.
Dessert consisted of champagne and red fruit slush (a bit on the acidic side, but so tasty), chocolates, the traditional turrón, and of course, unas copas. A classic gin and tonic with herbs and mixed berries (my favorite) or rum and coke is had to ease the digestion. After dinner many people continue the party by going out all night. I couldn’t because of the indigestion I was suffering, unfortunately.
On the 25th, Maria’s family and I celebrated with a few gifts in the morning. I repeated relentlessly that I did not want anything this year. Last year they were far too generous with me. I’m also trying simplifying my life and minimize the amount of things I have… So unable to go without not giving me anything, Maria’s mom gifted me an “Adventure Package” for use in and around Europe that I can do with one other person. She’s truly one of the most giving people I’ve ever met.
Sticking to my theme of gifting experiences, I gave her and her family a paleta de bellota (a cured ham leg that is fed naturally on acorns).
After the gift opening I slept on the couch to rest up for the lunch. Yes, hardly twelve hours later everyone gets back together and eats MORE. Much of what we ate was a composite of leftovers from the night before and ham. Indigestion or not, I cannot say no to the jamón.
After the 25th things settle down for a few days, but soon after there is Nochevieja or New Years Eve. My experience for new years is a party with friends, maybe family, lots of alcohol and appetizers. The Spanish version of New Years Eve is family orientated. There is a big dinner, with much of the same things we see at the Christmas dinner, and the twelve grapes. They celebrate with their family until midnight and as the bells ring in the new year, everyone shoves twelve grapes in their mouth. Why Spaniards eat 12 grapes on New Years still escapes me, but it’s tradition– so why question it, right? I’ve received many different responses to this question ranging from grapes represent good health and fertility so consuming them to start is a good omen to why not start the year off with a little competition?
I was served 12 PEELED seedless grapes. This is a thing that is sold in the market. Peeled grapes. It should have been unsurprising since Spaniards peel everything. I was often viewed with confusion and pity as I crunched into apples with their skin intact.
I digress. The other thing that is surely not forgotten is red undergarments. If you have forgotten, it’s essentially as bad as toasting without touching the table… because as they say “Quien no apoya, no folla”, which roughly translates to, “Who doesn’t touch the table with their glass, doesn’t fuck.” I love Spanish. If you’re not wearing red underwear, well you’re not going to get lucky. It’s as simple as that. I was told the origins of this tradition are rooted in the Toreo aspect of the culture. What attracts un toro? That red cape… same goes for a mate. Or the alternative: What do Spanish people look sexiest in? Red, of course. Alright– that might be a bit of personal opinion, but I think most could agree. Some people believe it also needs to be gifted to you in order for it to count.
The next day is usually filled with nursing the massive resaca (hangover) and avoiding any type of New Years Resolutions until at least the next day.
Los Reyes Magos
After Nochevieja, Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings) come to town on the 6th of January. This is traditionally the big gift giving day for Spaniards. Celebrating Santa Clause and exchanging gifts is somewhat of an Americanism that has slowly diffused into the culture over the last decade. Two days of gifts? The kids certainly aren’t complaining. During the evening of the fifth, there’s a large parade in which the Three Kings arrive and chuck hard candies out into the gobs of people lined up to see them. I stopped by before I made my way to soccer practice and little did I know I’d see my life flash before my eyes. An elderly woman dove into the back of my legs in order to retrieve a few caramelos. I fell forward into a woman and was stopped from certain death by a farola (streetlight). I’ve never seen such agility out of a woman over 65 years of age. I’ve never seen such… passion. We’ll call it that, because after she grabbed the candy she turned and gave them to an adorable little girl bouncing in the arms of her mother. I didn’t receive a perdón ni nada but after seeing that niña‘s face light up, she was forgiven.
The following day, the sixth, is (in my experience) reserved for immediate family. Maybe someone else will stop by mid morning, but generally it mirrored much of what my Christmas Day looked like in the United States. Gift giving, playing with said gifts in our pajamas most of the day, a big brunch, naps, a movie– intimate and relaxed. The next day, most people returned to work and school so it made for a nice transition into la vuelta a la rutina (the return to the routine).
While it was difficult to spend Christmas away from my family, I was so so lucky to be included into a wonderful family– my Spanish family. Skyping always eased some of the yearning I felt for my own kin…but they made sure I never felt like I didn’t belong, and that’s something that permeates my overall experience in Spain.
¡Gracias for reading! Have you experienced the holidays in Spain? What was your experience like? What about another culture? How are traditions and routines similar or different? Let me know in the comments below!
*Note: This was written in January of 2016 and was meant to be published then. Here it is, at last... Christmas in July.