By Neil Morris • 24 December 2021 • 10:00
Image source: Alberto Ceballos [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia
As in most places around the world, Spanish Christmas is a time to gather with the family and celebrate. And as with most celebrations in Spain, this always happens around the dinner table with a generous meal.
Before gathering for Christmas Day, families come together on Christmas Eve, and this is one of the most important events of the whole festive period when the best dishes and delicacies are served.
There is no set dish for the Spanish Christmas Eve dinner. Traditionally it used to be red cabbage with pine nuts, roast turkey or lamb, or even red sea bream. Nowadays, each family decides what they like best but there is usually a good deal of seafood, either as a starter or as a main.
After the meal there are the usual cheers with a glass of Cava, or sparkling wine, to celebrate the family reunion. This is followed by an array of Spanish Christmas sweets that will remain available on the table throughout the whole Christmas period.
Polvorones are a type of shortbread, traditionally made from almonds and flour. They are sweet, soft, very crumbly, and quite dry. As a joke, children like to stuff a whole polvoron in their mouth and try to say the word Pamplona, and then half of it usually comes out again!
Turron is a type of nougat, which is usually made with almonds but could also be made with pine nuts. These can be shaped in a rectangular or a circular tablet. Other turrones are made with eggs and are softer and sweeter. Turron de chocolate is not one of the traditional varieties, but it is certainly one of the kids’ favourites.
Mazapan is a very sweet marzipan presented in animals and Christmas shapes. Other sweets that might be readily available on display for a snack are nuts, such as almonds and pine nuts covered in chocolate or a white sugar coating; and Guirlache, a nut and caramel brittle.
At midnight on Christmas Eve, families attend Misa del Gallo, or the mass of the rooster, to commemorate the beginning of Christmas Day and the birth of baby Jesus.
Traditionally, most Spanish children receive their Christmas presents on January 6, from the Three Wise Men; but Santa Claus or, Papa Noël as he is known in Spain, has become so popular that now he also brings presents to Spanish children on Christmas Eve.
In the Basque Country, a province in northern Spain, they have their own traditional Santa Claus, his name is Olentzero; and nowadays he dresses as a local farmer although legend has it that he could have been a giant from the Pyrenees!
In Catalonia they also have their own tradition when it comes to receiving presents. From December 8, families start to feed the Caga Tio (pooping log), which is a Christmas trunk with a face drawn on one side. Then, on Christmas Day, the log ‘gives out’ gifts and presents for the children.
Following tradition, everybody in the family should leave their best pair of shoes, cleaned, and waxed beforehand, under the Christmas tree. On the morning of the 25th, usually a very early one, children gather around the Christmas tree waiting for everyone to arrive so they can open their new presents.
Christmas Day is celebrated with a big meal at lunchtime. It is possible that on this occasion the members of the family around the table would be different from the previous night. It is common in big Spanish families, where everyone has so many relatives, that they must move around to make sure they enjoy the festivities with everyone!
Throughout the whole Spanish Christmas period, it is common to see in every household a pesebre (manger) or belén, a representation of nativity scenes with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. Town halls from around the country also organise a big pesebre and sometimes host live representations of the Christmas story for everyone to come and see.
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