It’s the most wonderful time of the year! New expats in Spain or travelers here in December and January are in for a treat. Have you always wondered what the festive season looks like here in Spain? Well, don’t worry, we’ll explain everything you’ve ever wanted to know about how we celebrate the holidays in Spain.
December 6 & 8: Dia de la Constitución Española & La Inmaculada Concepción
You probably know Spaniards love to party. Any excuse for a gathering! So, the holiday season starts in early December here.
On December 6th, the Día de la Constitución Española (the day of the Spanish Constitution), the entire country takes the day off to celebrate the writing of Spain’s 1978 constitution. But the best part? It’s not only the 6th… the 8th is a holiday in Spain, too!
La Inmaculada Concepción (the Immaculate Conception) means that December kicks off with not one holiday but an entire puente! Literally “a bridge,” a puente is what Spaniards call a long weekend.
The very best years might even get an acueducto. That’s when the holidays fall on Monday and Wednesday. Of course, in that case, no one would dream of going to work that Tuesday! But this is just the beginning of the festive season in Spain. Buckle up.
December 22: El Gordo, Spain’s Christmas Lottery
While this tradition may sound strange, once you’re here you’ll find that playing the Christmas lottery, named El Gordo or “the big one,” is actually a huge deal during the holidays in Spain. People from across the country buy-in (literally) to this event every year! This lottery is considered the largest of its kind and has been going on for over two centuries. Yes — not even the Spanish Civil War could stop the Christmas lottery!
Literally millions of tickets sell each year, upwards of 150 million per year. And if your first thought was, “but doesn’t Spain have a population of only 46 million?” You are correct.
Because of the unusual system that divides lottery tickets, it is very common for Spaniards to buy small portions of many tickets every year. Some call this the “what if” buy: if everyone in your office buys into their communal ticket, and you don’t, “what if” they actually win??
The reason people “buy in” to tickets is that a single, whole ticket costs €200. Yes — €200! However, it’s practically unheard of for one person to buy a full ticket. Instead, you a buy a décimo (one-tenth), a €20 portion of one full ticket. These are then usually split further, among friends or family.
Another factor is that the lottery has not one grand prize, but nearly 2,000 prizes in total, all the way from a mere refund of your ticket price (if you had the same final digit as the winning number) up to €4,000,000 (The Gordo itself). Hence people assume that they have a better chance of winning a prize, even if not the grand prize. (And correctly: more than 10% of tickets sold will win something.)
If this sounds absurdly complicated, that’s because it is. You could spend decades in Spain and still not fully understand the Christmas lottery system. (It’s me.) If you’d like to dive down the Wikipedia rabbit hole of possible winning numbers and their corresponding percentage of the grand prize, have fun.
So, you decided not to buy your own lottery ticket this year, but you were unable to resist the “what if” factor at your office. And then your in-laws asked if you wanted to share their décimo. And your closest group of friends went in on one, too. Now you’ve got three different lottery tickets, and so on the morning of December 22nd, you’ll be glued to the TV watching the winning numbers get drawn.
This is a whole ‘nother event in Spain, where schoolchildren (back in the 1800s, only orphans!) sing out (literally!) the winning numbers and their corresponding prizes. This is a spectacle that must be seen to be believed, so please, have a look on YouTube. Here’s one example from last year of two young girls singing out the winning number for El Gordo.
December 24: Christmas Eve
Happy December 24th! Wait, you don’t celebrate Christmas until the 25th? In Spain, we do the Christmas holiday differently. Here, the real fiesta starts on Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, when the night is divided into two main events — the dinner, and for some families, the mass.
Dinner on Christmas Eve…. a true holiday feast!
On Christmas Eve, families across the country gather for an epic dinner feast. To start? Tapas, of course! Freshly-carved jamón slices, homemade pâtés, cheeses of all sorts, and, if you’re lucky, my favorite: ensaladilla rusa. Ensaladilla rusa is Spain’s answer to potato salad but is so much tastier than it sounds!
There is also usually a lot of incredible seafood served too. You’ll find anything from gambas or langostinos (shrimp or langostines) to pulpo (octopus), or even percebes — gooseneck barnacles, a rare and very expensive delicacy.
When it’s time for the main course, you’ll nearly always eat something oven-roasted. Meat is a popular choice. It could be Segovian-style cochinillo (roast suckling pig), a leg of lamb, or a joint of beef. Whole fish is also a mainstay and could be anything from sea bream to hake.
And to wash it all down? Wine, of course! White, rosé, red. Cava, Spanish-made sparkling wine, is especially popular during the festive season. However, some families opt for sidra (apple cider), Northern Spain’s alcoholic beverage choice.
Not full yet, I hope? There’s still dessert!
The most traditional holiday classics in Spain are turrón (nougat, more or less) and polvorones (a very crumbly, almond-based shortbread). If you’re heading to holiday dinner and are bringing a dessert, Casa Mira in Madrid is well-known for its extraordinary turrón.
In Barcelona, La Campana is the place to go for turrón and holiday sweets. Both these shops are lovely and steeped in history. So if you can, definitely stop in to select your desserts. If you can’t make it, both stores take orders online.
Carrera de S. Jerónimo, 30
Hours (Christmas Season): Mon-Sat, 9:30a-2p & 4:30-9p
Hours (December 24 & 31): 9:30a-4p
Carrer de la Princesa, 36
Hours: Mon-Sun, 10a-8p
Dessert-time is also when the liqueurs come out. Orujo (Spanish grappa) and pacharán (made from fermented sloe berries) are popular choices, despite their burn. But the real crowd-pleaser is crema de orujo, a potent Spanish spin on Bailey’s. If you’re in Madrid, stop by one of the little shops below to pick up some great selections of wines and liqueurs.
Calle del León, 29
Hours: Mon-Fri, 10a–2p & 5–8:30p; Sat from 10a-2:30p
Madrid & Darracott
Calle del Duque de Rivas, 8
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11am-2pm & 4-9pm
Spending the Holiday with a Spanish Abuela? Chances are You’ll Attend Midnight Mass…
After dinner, religious families will attend midnight mass, or la Misa del Gallo, or Rooster’s Mass. Its strange name is steeped in a bit of folklore and tradition. It’s proclaimed that exactly at midnight, Jesus was born, and the roosters announced His arrival. In the 5th century A.D., midnight mass was officially institutionalized by Pope Sixtus III.
Many Catholics who can’t make it to church choose to watch it on TV. Of course, the most famous mass is held by Pope Frances at St. Peter’s Basilica, but many other churches also broadcast or stream services, too. For example, in Barcelona, the famous Montserrat Abbey televises their midnight mass on their website.
December 25: Christmas Day
A more tranquil affair. Nowadays, many families in Spain will have a little holiday nod to Santa. Though he is definitely not traditional, some parents will allow their kids to open a gift or two on Christmas.
In the Basque Country, children receive their Christmas gifts from Olentzero, a hefty & lovable Basque peasant. In Catalonia, children get their presents from Tió de Nadal, a little log that defecates sweet treats. Yes, folks, you heard this right.
Tió de Nadal also called Caga Tio or “shitting uncle,” is one of Spain’s most interesting holiday customs. Early in the holiday season, children receive their little uncle-log and are told to take care of him. They feed him treats and keep him warm, making sure he’s fat and happy and ready for Christmas.
Then, on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, they hit the log with a little stick and sing a song to him, which essentially tells him to defecate. When the children aren’t looking, parents place candies, nuts, and little trinkets under Tio’s blanket, surprising the children with poo gifts.
While Caga Tio is a fun activity for kids in Catalonia, the real gift-giving bonanza across Spain is still two weeks away…
As for Christmas Dinner, many families do another big meal on Christmas Day, though no one is especially hungry after their massive dinner the night before! Having another large celebration is great for families who divide their holiday between two sets of in-laws or at different siblings’ houses.
December 31: New Year’s Eve
If you’re planning to spend Nochevieja (“old night”) in Spain, a midday siesta is highly recommended because the festivities start early and run late!
New Year’s Eve is once again a family holiday in Spain, with (another) huge feast laid out on mama and papa’s dining table. There’s not much difference in the menu at the holidays here, so there will likely be a similar spread of nibbles to start, roast meat and seafood for seconds, and lots of small sweet treats to finish. And wine. Always wine.
The long meal lasts ‘til nearly midnight. That’s when you get ready for the uvas: the grapes! In Spain, the midnight tradition is to eat twelve grapes in time with the twelve bells, which chime out at midnight. All eyes are on the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, our version of Times Square, to watch the bells live in action.
The square is filled with crowds cheering and drinking cava, though of course, if you’re still home polishing off the liqueurs and turrones, there’s no way you’ll make it to Sol before midnight. Hence, the pre-uvas — the early grapes — a practice run the night before where all the locals fill the plaza to make sure their grape-eating-timing is up to snuff.
And now it’s finally the New Year! You’ve eaten and drunk yourself silly and managed not to choke on your twelve grapes. It’s officially party time!
Spaniards will plan to start meeting up on New Year’s Eve around 1 AM, perhaps even 2. Drinks and dancing are the game plan. And don’t even think of heading home before 6 AM! The very best Nocheviejas end in your local old man bar, eating a late (or is it early?) breakfast of chocolate con churros to fill your belly before crawling home to sleep it off.
January 1: New Year’s Day
Then lunch; with the family… of course.
January 6: Three Kings’ Day
While Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, is a fairly traditional staple in many parts of the world, he is only a recent holiday figure in Spain. Traditionally, Spanish children send their wish lists to the Reyes Magos — the three wise men. Melchor, Gaspar, Baltasar (aka the bringers of frankincense, gold, and myrrh) are their names and nearly every niño will have a favorite.
On the night of January 5th, there is a massive parade in practically every city and town, as the Three Kings arrive in grandiose fashion, showering candy onto spectators from their parade floats. Families start lining up hours in advance, ready with warm drinks to hold them over and umbrellas to catch the candies. Some go so far as to build elaborate mini-scaffolding, hoisting their children’s head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd — easier candy-grabbing!
Then, sometime before dawn the next morning, the three wise men arrive on their camels (move over, Rudolph) and leave presents for boys and girls to wake up to the next morning. Instead of milk and cookies, we leave a plate of turrón out as a snack (and water for the camels).
And for the humans to eat? Roscón, Three Kings’ cake, a simple sweet cake in the shape of a ring, topped with candied fruit and usually filled with whipped cream or crème anglaise. (They also come without a cream filling, but this is never the right choice.)
The roscón also has hidden surprises: there is always one dried bean and one mini-figurine baked into the dough. If you get the figurine, celebrate! You’re the lucky one and get to wear the paper crown that your roscón came with. And if your slice contains the bean, tradition says you foot the bill for the sweet treat (though this is practically never enforced).
If you’re in charge of bringing the roscón, head over to El Riojano on Calle Mayor quick! This gorgeous pastry shop was originally founded in the 1850s and has preserved all of its stunning decor ever since. If you need a restorative snack to get you through your final Reyes gift shopping, try a mugí or a napolitana!
Calle Mayor, 10
Hours: Mon-Sun, 9a-9p
January 7: Back to Reality
All good things must come to an end, right?
January 7th signals the return to real life: school, the office, not eating cake for breakfast… But not to worry. Spain doesn’t stop when it comes to celebrating! There are many smaller fiestas early in the year but many Spaniards, especially in the South, really pull out all the stops for Easter. And while Easter isn’t until the Spring, you better believe residents across Spain will be ready for the holiday!