Christmas is celebrated worldwide. Each country has its own traditions; however, globalisation has played an important role in society and, as a result, Christmas shares similar traditions in different countries because they have spread.
In this post we are going to share with all of you how Christmas is celebrated in Spain and what other Spanish-speaking countries do for Christmas.
Firstly, an essential piece of Christmas decoration. El Belén (in Colombia it is called El Pesebre and in Dominican Republic it is called Nacimiento) is a traditional piece of decoration in all Spanish houses. It represents the birth of the Child Jesus. It is composed by Saint Joseph, Saint Mary and the Child Jesus. However, families try to make it as big as they can, by adding sheepherders, people from the village of Bethlehem, animals, trees, wells, paths, stars, etc. Sometimes they are handmade; people use ground and natural moss to create a more realistic Belén.
Secondly, some imported traditions are the Christmas Poinsettia and the Christmas tree. The Christmas Poinsettia is often used to decorate Christmas tables. It looks really beautiful. Here is a picture of it:
The Christmas tree was not very common among Spanish households until late 19th century, when, according to one of the historic sources, a Russian woman imported it to Spain. The Christmas tree as it is today seems to have been in Germany for the first time. At the beginning, it symbolized the tree of the Universe, Yggdrasil, before being Christianized; the top represented the Asgard and the Valhalla and the roots represented the Helheim. Then, it represented Hell and Heaven and it was put to celebrate Christ’s birth. The feeling of Christmas begins when families start decorating the tree some days before Christmas.
The Sorteo de Navidad is a traditional Christmas Lottery on the 22th of December in Spain. It is a sign of the beginning of Christmas in Spain. Here you can find a video to familiarise with the procedure of the lottery, which is sung by the children of the Colegio San Ildefonso, a former orphanage, dressed in a uniform and in a special and funny way.
Finally, the Villancicos (Christmas Carrols). They are traditional songs that pass from generation to generation. Let’s hear one of them in Spanish:
On Christmas Eve, families gather together for dinner. It is a magical night that lasts until late in the night. Typical meals served on this evening are lamb, stuffed turkey and shellfish. For those who have a sweet-tooth desserts are the best part of meal. The most typical ones are turrones, mazapanes and polvorones. Here you can find how to prepare turrón blando casero. It is delicious!
And here you can see how all these sweets look like:
Normally, religious (Roman Catholic) people go to church at midnight. This mass is called Misa del Gallo.
Santa Claus (Papá Noel) is an imported tradition; however, nowadays it has been settled in Spain as if it were a Spanish tradition. It is celebrated the same way as it is in other countries. Santa Claus will give presents to good boys and girls according to what they have asked for in their letters. In Spain they open all presents in the morning of the 25th. However, in some Latin American countries they open their presents on Christmas Eve, at midnight, at the same time as they put the Child Jesus on the Christmas scene.
It is awesome to see that in some regions of Spain Santa Claus is not celebrated; instead, they have something different. In the Basque Country (even the French part) and Navarra they have the Olentzero. He is a gentle smart coalman who comes down from the mountains to give presents to children. He likes very much drinking and eating. Here you can see him:
In the Catalonian region children can find their presents in a trunk. It is called the Tió. The tradition consists on a small trunk under a blanket that, after beating it with sticks, gives presents to the children, especially sweets. People also sing a song around it before getting their presents. Here there is a picture of it:
In the morning of the 25th families gather together ot have lunch, open the presents and —in the case of catholic families— celebrate the birth of Christ.
Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, on 28th December, we celebrate the Holy Innocents Day. Its origin resides in the order by Herod of killing all male children under two years old in the vicinity of Bethlehem for fear of being overthrown by the new born King of Jews. The tradition is making jokes on this day in almost all Spanish-speaking countries: in newspapers, television, with friends and family, etc. Several regions of Spain have their own tradition, like in Pallars Jussà (Lérida) (llufa), in Ibi (Alicante) (Día dels Enfarinats) and in Jalance (Valencia) (Fiesta de los Locos). This is the symbol of the Holy Innocents:
On New Year’s Eve, people gather with their friends or families to have dinner together. There are several traditions that Spanish do: wearing red underwear (it brings you good luck during the following year), drinking champagne in a glass containing a gold ring (this is also a tradition in Colombia), throwing the glass once you have drunk the champagne and, finally, the 12 grapes. The 12 grapes is a Spanish tradition settled at the beginning of the 20th century because of a good grape harvest in Alicante which allowed delivering grapes to everyone on New Year’s Eve. The tradition consists on eating one grape per peal at the Puerta del Sol (a square whose main symbol is a clock) in Madrid. The other option is doing it while watching the clock in the Puerta del Sol on television. Here you can appreciate how it works:
Remember that if you eat all of them on time, good luck will come to you the following year. After that, people tend to go out with friends until really late, dressed in their finest clothes.
The New Year starts with the traditional Concert of Vienna, retransmitted by the public channel on television. This is it:
On New Year’s Day people have lunch together, unless the previous night party does not allow them to do it.
The last celebration of this period is The Three Wise Men, on the 6th of January, when children receive the presents they asked for if they have behaved properly. This tradition is not only typical in Spain but also in some Latin American countries like Mexico, Paraguay, etc. In Chile they call Epiphany Pascua de los Negros. In the evening of the 5th, it is traditional to go to the Cavalcade of Magi. It is a parade where people participating get dressed and make huge structures by hand. They give sweets to children. At the end of the Cavalcade there appear The Three Wise Men saying hello to all children in the streets. Here is last year’s Cavalcade in Madrid:
Before going to bed, children prepare some stuff for the Three Wise Men: some corn for the camels, sweets, water, etc. Then, they go straight to bed, willing to wake up in the morning to open the presents. In this morning Spanish people also tend to have lunch together or, at least, gather to eat the typical Roscón de Reyes (in some parts of America, like Mexico and Argentina, they also call it Rosca or Rosco de Reyes). Traditionally, it contains a broad bean, and the person who gets it has to pay for the Roscón. You can try to bake it:
There are also some curious traditions in several Latin American countries worth mentioning. It is important to notice that in most of the South-American countries it is summer when Christmas is celebrated: in Uruguay, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Argentina, etc.
In Peru, they give presents for adults on New Year’s Day and for kids, as usual, at Christmas. Besides, they have the tradition of burning a doll that symbolizes a bad politician, something bad that they don’t want to keep for the following year, anything they want to get rid of, etc. This is called La quema del muñeco. Finally, they consider that yellow underwear brings luck on New Year’s Eve. For Colombian, yellow is also the lucky color. In Argentina it is pink the chosen color.
In México, in mid-December they celebrate Las Posadas. This tradition consists on praying during nine days while moving from one house into another. This tradition has spread around Southamerica, in some countries like Colombia (La Novena de Aguinaldo), Ecuador, El Salvador, Puerto Rico (they called them Las Misas de Aguinaldo), etc. A typical Mexican Christmas drink is ponche con piquete; it is made with wine, fruits, spices, cane, etc. and Las piñatas are also a tradition in Mexico. They contain sweets like caramel-coated almonds that fell when pulling one of the cords of the piñata. Here you can see how piñatas look like.
In Guatemala they eat tamales stuffed with different types of meat, olives and dried fruits and nuts. They are also eaten in more Latin American countries. Here is a picture in which you can see that they are stuffed:
In Chile, they call Viejito Pascuero to Papá Noel (the most common name for Santa Claus). There are also typical food and drinks such as the Pan de Pascua (bread), the cola de mono (made of milk, coffee, moonshine and spices), the Rompón, etc.
In Colombia, some typical meals are, for instance, bueñuelos and natillas. And outstanding traditions are El día de las velitas (The little candles’ Day), in which the whole city of Bogotá is lighted with candles, and Los Agüeros (on New Year’s Eve), which are superstition practices. An example of Los Agüeros is to peal three potatoes, one of them completely, the second one just half of it and the last one must not be pealed at all. Then, you hide them under the bed. In the dark, you have to choose one. If you take the completely pealed one, this means that he or she won’t be lucky the following year. If you take the half-pealed one, this means that you will be more or less lucky. And if you take the not-pealed one, this means that you will be lucky the following year. Another example is: if you want to travel a lot the following year, take an empty suitcase and run outside the house. Finally, on New Year’s Eve, a handful of lentils in your pocket will bring you luck for the following year. These traditions are widely spread.
In Venezuela it is funny how they close the streets around the church so that people can go there roll-skating. In Ecuador, they put three drops of rose water in their glasses to toast; this will bring them luck.
In Dominican Republic the telera and the mono de gandule are typical meals. And the Christmas music is often played with tambora, guara and accordion. They are cheerful and very funny songs. Let’s listen to one of them:
In Nicaragua it is a tradition to sing “Faltan 5 para las 12” on New Year’s Eve. In Costa Rica these special days start on the 12th of December and last until the 2nd of February. They seem to be the longest holiday days ever! In El Salvador they have the panes con pollo as a typical Christmas meal.
In Bolivia, in the Andean area, hot chocolate with buñuelos is pretty typical. And in the rural area of Altilpalo they used to celebrate the Fiesta de los awatiris; they would decorate their sheep and would throw rose petals. Finally, in Cuba they tend to throw water from the balconies to the streets; it is a tradition that used to be accompanied with old clothes. This meant the need for renewal.
So, we have come to the end! We hope to have summarized the most relevant traditions to show you how Christmas is celebrated in different Spanish-speaking countries. We are sure that we have not mentioned everything; however, it’s your turn as a reader to share with all of us your own traditions. We can conclude by saying that in spite of sharing some traditions among countries, each one has something special that makes it unique in the world. This is culture, something that differentiates peoples, families and humans in general.
Thank you very much for your loyalty. We really appreciate it.
As we are approaching these days, we will see you again in 2015. Happy Christmas, Happy New Year and all the best to all of you.
Spanish Language Route Team