For the Spanish, Christmas Eve is a bigger deal than Christmas Day. A large meal with the family is on the Eve, along with a visit to church for the Christmas Mass. There are more unusual customs, but the big festive meal and Spanish sweets after that meal are the most iconic part of Christmas.
For this reason, if you are planning a trip to Spain that includes Christmas Eve, make reservations in advance for a restaurant that night. That date books up very well in advance.
Christmas, as Americans celebrate it with the exchange of Christmas gifts, occurs 13 days after Christmas Eve on January 6 for Dia de las Reyes. That day, there is more feasting and the specialty of the day is the roscón de los reyes, a ring cake made to resemble a king's crown with candied fruits.
Food on Christmas Eve
If you spend Christmas in Spain, then you will find out that Christmas Eve dinner is usually the biggest meal of the year. In the past pavo trufado, turkey stuffed with truffles was a popular dish with the country's elite. Now the only rule with the Christmas Eve meal is that people eat well, and usually more expensively. Lobster is very common, and a roast of some sort is essential, usually lamb or a suckling pig. In addition, most families will also have soup, usually fish stew, and an abundance of other seafood, cheeses, hams, and pates.
Dinner starts late, at about 10 p.m. and will go on for a couple of hours.
Where Spanish food at Christmas really comes into its own is with its sweets, including a variety of nougats, marzipans, and crumbly cakes.
The most popular sweet of the season is turron. It is a nougat usually made with nuts. There are two types, turron de Jijona, a soft nougat also called turron blando, and turron de Alicante also called turron duro, a hard nougat.
A popular confection from other parts of the world around the holiday time is marzipan, called mazapan in Spanish, it is also a popular favorite at Christmastime in Spain. Yema is a type of marzipan that is made with egg. It is a specialty of Avila.
There are two popular small crumbly cakes or cookies in Spain, polvorones and mantecados, that are favorites at Christmas. Polvorones and mantecados are two different types of Spanish shortbreads made of flour, sugar, milk, and usually almonds. Polvorones are usually covered with powdered sugar. The word polvo means "powder." Manteca means "lard," which is usually a key ingredient. Another popular cookie is a rosquillo de vino, a cookie flavored with anise and wine.
Other Common Foods
Other popular foods adorning Christmas tables and found in recipes during the holidays include mandarins (in Spanish, mandarinas), walnuts ( in Spanish, nueces), and dates (in Spanish, datiles).
Eating at a Restaurant in Spain at Christmas
It is almost impossible to get a meal in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day is easier, but plan ahead. If you are arriving in Spain a few days before Christmas, make finding a restaurant for Christmas Day the first thing you do.