Few people think of Christmas as the best time to go to Spain, but with a wealth of festive food and festivals, be prepared for a very sparkly, seasonal Spain.
Most people who celebrate Christmas enjoy a few family traditions that have been passed down through the generations. Spain is a country with more than a stockingful of Christmas customs. As well as the gift that never stops giving - train routes take you to every corner of this heritage-rich country. Here are some of our tips for where to go to get some Spanish seasonal splendour.
Catalonia at Christmas
Whether you are having a Barcelona, Girona or Tarragona Christmas, one of the most common traditions you will come across is Caga Tió, which translates as a ‘poo-ing log’. In the weeks before Christmas children decorate a log with a face, arms and legs, cover it with a red blanket or a regional ‘barretina’ red hat. Every evening they feed it with small pieces of bread or orange peel. Then on Christmas Eve, while singing a song that tells the log to poo, they hit the log with a stick and then lift the blanket, only to discover that the log has magically excreted sweet treats for everyone. No sh*t.
This central Pyrenean region also enjoys the Caga Tió tradition although it is called Tizón de Nadal or Toza in this part of the world. In addition, the ancient city of Zaragoza boasts the largest outdoor nativity scene in Spain, in front of Pilar Basilica. With 56 human-size figures no less. Elaborate nativity scenes are common throughout Spain, called Beléns, which is the Spanish word for Bethlehem. This historic town, dating back to Roman times, takes its winter wonderland pretty seriously too with an ice rink, snow park and ziplines, as well as a Christmas market that goes on until 6 January. One other charming Zaragoza tradition is its Christmas tree of wishes, where people tie their hopes and dreams onto its branches. Other Aragon hot spots glowing with Spanish Christmas traditions include Calatayud, Teruel and Huesca.
Basque country at Christmas
If you are spending Christmas in Bilbao, San Sebastián or any of the more remote parts of Spain’s Euskadi or Basque country, it is the perfect time to feast on its superb local food. One tradition dating back centuries is Santo Tomás Day (21 December) when farmers traditionally brought their winter produce to market but also to pay rent to their landowners. It’s a day all about traditional clothing, music and food (especially local seafood). The big gatherings are in San Sebastián and Bilbao but you will also find them in Azpeitia, Lekeitio, Errenteria, Irun, Hondarribia, Usurbil and Ar.
Father Christmas comes in a different guise in Basque country, dating back to pagan times. Olentzero is a giant peasant type character, dressed in traditional charcoal burner’s clothes. Olentzero is carried through Bilbao 23 December and waits for children outside the Arriaga Theatre on Christmas Eve. Although dating back to pre-Christian times, myth has it that Olentzero heard about the birth of Christ while working in the mountains and came down to share his seasonal scoop.
Andalucia at Christmas
If you love an orange in your Christmas stocking, there is no better place to go in search of one than in Seville, the capital of Andalucia, which is aglow with plenty of Christmas lights, markets and crypts. Granada, however, celebrates Christmas on all cylinders, with a pagan fire ritual known as Hogueras de Navidad that takes place on the winter solstice. It is said that people who jump over fires on the shortest day of the year will stay healthy in the year to come. The medieval town of Jaen also goes bonfire crazy on this day too.
Santiago de Compostela
As you can imagine, this Galician great at the end of the Camino de Santiago is a hub of Christian celebrations at Christmas. Cribs, choirs and cultural events abound. Along with plenty of chocolate and churros. You can forget all notions of self-sacrifice at this time of year in Santiago de Compostela. You can even travel by train to Santiago de Compostela from Madrid on Christmas Day. Leave after Christmas lunch and arrive five hours later in time for more celebrations.
Countrywide traditions in Spain
There are several Christmas customs adhered to all over Spain and which you are sure to come across no matter where your travels take you.
Although it may sound like some remote Spanish hilltop town, El Gordo is actually the name for the Spanish lottery. Just about everyone follows this big silver star at Christmas, making it the biggest in the world. The name actually translates as ‘Fat One’ and it takes place 22 December, with tickets on sale in supermarkets or tobacconists (estancos).
The traditional sweet of turrón is eaten all over Spain at Christmas. Turrón is a very old, traditional sweet of Arabic origin, made of almonds, honey and egg white. You can buy the teeth breaking hard version, common to Alicante, or the soft sticky nougat Jijona version. If you travel to Catalonia, the torró d'Agramunt in Lleida or the torró de Xerta in Tortosa are the regional equivalents.
The Three Wise Men
This is really the big day for most Spanish children over the Christmas period, as it is the Three Wise Men who bring gifts on the night of 5 January, the eve of the Christian festival of Epiphany. Los Reyes Magos in Spanish, many towns have festivals (Cabalgata de los Reyes) on the eve to watch the wise men parade through the streets, throwing sweets and treats out to the children. Before going to bed, children leave their shoes out to be filled with presents.
On Epiphany, the traditional treat in most Spanish homes is the roscón de reyes, a sweet bread decorated with colourful dried fruit and almonds. In Catalonia, this divine pastry is called tortell. So, if you are thinking of having Christmas in Spain, do the wise thing and stay there until 6 January because while the UK is all back to porridge, Spain is still feasting.
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