Chef Maxi Lorenzo from Barcelona gives a flavour of a festive season in the sun…
A greedy charcoal maker, a risqué Christmas log and feast upon feast! From the bonfire jumping ‘Hogueras’ celebrations on the 21st of December to Epiphany on the 6th of January, Christmas in Spain is a spectacular season. With family gatherings, the finest traditional food and drink and a healthy measure of fun and games, we challenge you not to find some inspiration in Spain’s Christmas traditions!
Christmas begins in the first week of December. Shops begin stocking their Christmas fare; Sobrasada sausage, Iberican ham and crystallized fruits and candies lie in wait. Lights illuminate the streets of towns and cities nationwide; check out the no expense spared canopy on Calle Larios, Malaga for a shining example!
Traditional ‘Belénes’, or Nativity scenes, are found in churches, houses, businesses and anywhere else that can find a space. These can range from bookshelf-sized children’s creations to magnificent feats of community spirit such as Alicante’s Ruta de los Belénes de Villaviciosa, a chain of scenes that will take you on an historical tour of the old city’s most beautiful architecture.
For many Spanish citizens the familiar melody announcing the start of the ‘Loteria Navidad’, or Christmas Lottery, which first began in 1812, signals the true beginning of Christmas. Hundreds of prizes are announced, with the final prize, ‘El Gordo’, or The Fat One, announced at the end.
Olentzero is the Basque Country’s Father Christmas. The traditional tale of this curious figure has been amended slightly from his rather morbid origins and is now a treasured part of history. The festivities around the appearance of Olentzero vary a lot from region to region. Often a parade is held as he departs the city to return to the mountains. Families line the gloriously lit and decorated streets to bid him farewell, shops decorate their windows, and Christmas Carols echo long into the night.
Farmers from the countryside bring produce from their or farmhouses, to sell; a wide range of meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and baked goods. Celebrate with a glass of ‘txikito’, a local Basque white wine, and make sure to keep an eye out for ‘Pastel Vasco’ – a delicious Basque Cake, decadently buttery and filled with vanilla cream, often with a layer of preserved cherries. Children wander the streets, bearing effigies of Olentzero and singing his traditional carol that hints at his appetite – ‘we can’t sate him, he has eaten ten whole piglets’!
‘Nochebuena’, or ‘The Good Night’, falls on the 24th and is celebrated with the biggest meal of the year, a vast, multi-course family feast that begins late in the evening. There is no exchanging of gifts yet, although lucky children might have a little something left for them by Papa Noél. The meal commonly begins with a glass of cava and some tapas appetizers; ‘gambas a la plancha’, or pan grilled prawns, fresh mussels in chopped cucumber and tomato dressing and a range of delicious meats and cheeses.
‘Sopa de mariscos’, or seafood soup may follow, or perhaps a delicious garlic soup, ‘sopa de ajo’. A whole roasted pig, an enormous roast lamb joint, or maybe a turkey serves as the main course in many houses. ‘El tronco de Navidad’, or Christmas log, often serves as a delicious desert and the scrumptious almond, honey and sugar rich turrón, made either soft, hard and sometimes with chocolate is another favourite treat for many. Meals sometimes finish before the chapel bells toll at midnight to call revellers to church for the ‘Misa del Gallo’, whilst others prefer to attend mass before beginning the celebrations.
In Catalonia and parts of Aragon you’ll find the curious tradition of ‘Tió de Nadal’, which roughly translates as ‘Christmas log’. A small, hollow log, decorated with a smiling happy face and floppy red hat, is shrouded in a blanket and kept warm and well fed by the family right up until Christmas Eve. A traditional, yet somewhat unpleasant song is sung during this celebration, in which children command the log to pooh a range of delicacies. The Tió is then beaten with sticks in order to deposit the gifts for the children – sweets, nuts, turróns and other treats, culminating in a stinky herring to indicate the log is spent. The poor Tió is then placed in the fire as the gifts are shared amongst the family.
Christmas Day is kept relatively low key with some families only venturing as far as the local bar or restaurant. Christmas gifts are generally reserved for the celebrations on January 6th, however some fortunate children may well get an early surprise.
The Day of the Holy Innocents, ‘Diá de los Santos Inocentes’, falls on December 28th and serves as an equivalent to our April Fools’ Day. Newspaper and television stations run ridiculous news stories, people play pranks on each other and some mischievous bakers lace their delicious cakes with salt! Whilst the day has a tragic biblical origin it is now a day in which everyone is especially wary that they may become the ‘innocent soul’, or the target of trickery!
Children travel from house to house making noise and singing Christmas songs in exchange for ‘aguinaldo’, or payment, such as mantecados, a lard-laden cake spiced with anise, cinnamon and lemon, or polvorones, traditional crumbly almond cookies. In Ibi, Valencia, the day takes a messier turn. ‘Els Enfarinats’, or ‘The Breaded Ones’ is an event over 200 years old, with participants in mock military dress leading a staged coup d’état, culminating in a blaze of fireworks and a food fight like no other; flour bombs, eggs and an incredibly long clean up operation, all outside the town hall!
New Year’s Eve brings feasts and celebrations long into the morning of New Year’s Day. Make sure you find yourself a party, or ‘cotillones de nochevieja‘ and arm yourself with a glass of cava and twelve grapes, one for each strike of the clock, to ring in the New Year and ensure good fortune comes your way.
Whilst Santa Claus, or ‘Papa Noél’, is enjoying a rise in popularity amongst the Spanish, the culmination of this festive period belongs to the Three Kings. Families line the streets of towns and cities to enjoy the parade of the Three Kings, in which the Kings, entourages of local citizens and beautifully decorated floats pass by, tossing handfuls of sweets to the children as they go.
January 6th is the last day of Christmas. The ‘Día de los Reyes Magos’, or ‘The Day of the Three Kings’ is by far the most important day for children as it is now they can finally unwrap their presents, brought to them by Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar. Lunch is yet another family event, including the traditional festive cake ‘Roscón des Reyes’.
A note of caution; this delicacy contains two hidden treasures, a figurine, sometimes of the baby Jesus, and a dried lima bean. The lucky person that finds the figurine is named ‘king of the party’ and must wear a crown for the day, while the unfortunate person who finds the bean must buy next year’s Roscón!
A season of celebration, feasting and family, a collection of cultures steeped in tradition, not to mention more than a little Christmas spirit. Why not introduce some of the magic of Spain into your Christmas this year?