By Cat Gaa
Celebrating ‘dulce Navidad’ in Spain has all of the familiar hallmarks of its Anglo counterpart – the chestnuts roasting on an open fire somewhere down Constitución Avenue, long lines at department stores, and even a half-melted ice rink beneath the Setas (why the city doesn’t dress it up like a Christmas tree is beyond comprehension). Still, the Sevillano version has its own quirks and traditions, making the season a magical time.
The Immaculate Conception Day
There are not just 12 Days of Christmas – the holiday season officially gets underway on the Immaculate Conception Day – that is, when the Virgin Mary became pregnant with Jesus Christ on December 8th. Seville used to save turning on their elaborate Christmas lights until this day, though streets are now lit up in November. Many believe this was a ploy to get shoppers into stores, but the light displays and projection against city hall is truly a spectacle.
Besides, nothing says happy holidays like over-the-top Christmas lights, right?
The days leading up to Christmas are full of special sweets, like ‘mantecados’ (lard cookies) and ‘turrón’ (nougat candy). Families often have sweets and liquor out for the influx of visitors at this time. It’s also traditional to celebrate a Christmas dinner amongst friends, as well as work colleagues. Restaurants prepare special menu items to reflect the season, often consisting of game and shellfish.
A beloved tradition is the elaborate replicas of Bethlehem, called ‘belénes’. Most parishes, and even local businesses, dedicate time to completing these dioramas that tell the story of Christ’s birth, and Seville holds the largest Nativity scene market in front of the cathedral for the six weeks leading up to Christmas. In fact, many households prefer to set up their own ‘belén’ and not a Christmas tree.
Shops and radio stations ring out with the traditional Christmas carols, called ‘villancicos.’ These songs are based mostly on Christian traditions, though mainstream music is beginning to take root. There are also artisan markets to take in, lottery tickets to buy, and a huge Christmas tree is erected in Plaza Nueva, just in front of town hall.
Spaniards throughout Spain consider Christmas Eve, called ‘Nochebuena’ to be more important than Christmas Day. Families will celebrate with a large meal, even springing for a ham leg or lamb for the occasion. The faithful go to midnight mass, La Misa del Gallo, to hold a vigil for the soon-to-be-born babe in the manger.
For as big a day as Christmas is for Anglos and many other cultures, it’s a bit lackluster in Spain. Businesses and many restaurants will close, but churches and bars will be open. It’s a time when families come together to drink and eat, though no gifts are open on this day.
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve is traditionally a family holiday that is celebrated at home. After an elaborate dinner, often including fresh shellfish and lots of wine, families gather to watch the old year tick away. Twelve grapes, called ‘uvas’ and champagne are consumed at midnight, and luck will be in your favor if you can eat 12 grapes, one at each stroke of midnight.
Not interested in stuffing grapes with seeds into your mouth? Wearing red underwear at the stroke of midnight is also supposed to bring you good luck in the ‘Año Nuevo.’
In Seville, tourists and young people tend to meet in Plaza Nueva to take part in the countdown and eat their grapes. Discos pump out music all night, as the following day is a bank holiday.
The Epiphany and its aftermath
Children in Spain receive their gifts on the Epiphany Day, January 6th, believing that they are brought by the Three Wise Men from the Orient. The city of Seville stages an enormous parade where ‘Los Reyes Magos’ (Three Wise Men ) ride through the streets on horses, chucking candy and small plastic toys at onlookers. Families gather to eat the Roscón de Reyes, a sweet cake that has a coin and a bean baked inside. He who finds the coin in his slice, which is sometimes replaced with a figurine, gets to be the king, whereas the unlucky one who bites into the bean must pay for the entire cake.
Life returns to normal on the 7th, as children go back to school and the most wonderful time of the year in this displaced American’s life begins: the sale season.
Cat Gaa left the skyscrapers of Chicago for the olive groves of Andalusia more than six years ago. A self-proclaimed scrooge with an aversion to every sort of Christmas sweet, she and her family use Christmas time to travel around Europe, far away from the ridiculous Christmas carols in languages she can understand.