How to Celebrate Christmas in Spain

  • 01 of 05

    The festive season in Spain

    Christmas lights in Seville, Spain
    Christmas lights in Seville, Spain. Gapito /Creative Commons

    Christmas in Spain is quite a treat - the action gears up in mid-December and doesn't stop until January 6. There is the giant multi-billion euro lottery, splendid nativity scenes, lots of great food and one of the biggest New Year's Eve celebrations you are likely to see.

    As is the case throughout most of the Western world, Christmas first starts to rear its ugly head earlier and earlier each year. Traditional sweets such as turron and marzipan appeared in supermarkets in late October. However, apart from this, little takes place until December.

    Remember, winter in Spain can get cold! Read more about the weather in Spain.

    Important Days ​at Christmas in Spain

    • December 8 - Inmaculada is the religious celebration that kicks of Christmas. Most popular in Seville.  Christmas starts here. Inmaculada is the Patron Saint of Seville, where musical groups from the university, known as 'tunas', gather around the statue of the Virgin Immaculada in the Plaza del Triunfo (behind the cathedral) in traditional dress and sing songs. On the morning of the 8th, children dance the Danza de los Seises (Dance of the Sixes) in the square. An event for the whole family.
    • December 12 - Noche Vieja Universitaria (University New Year's Eve) in Salamanca. With all the students away from their friends for Christmas & New Year, everyone gets together in Plaza Mayor for an early new year's celebration. For more information, visit Noche Vieja Universitaria.
    • December 13 - El Dia de Santa Lucia, patron saint of the blind. Traditionally the blind sing christmas carols in the streets, although this is less common in modern times. In the village of Zújar near Granada, bonfires are lit to celebrate the event. The Santa Lucia festival is actually a major Scandinavian festival (so I'm told) and so where there is a high concentration of Scandinavians, such as in Las Palmas in Majorca and on the Canary Islands, there is often several days of festivities.
    • December 22 - Christmas Lottery in Spain - 'El Gordo'
    • December 24 - Christmas Eve  (Noche Buena in Spanish).
    • December 25 - Christmas Day (Navidad in Spanish).
    • December 31 - New Year's Eve (Noche Vieja in Spanish).
    • January 6 - Three Kings Day in Spain
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  • 02 of 05

    Things to Do at Christmas in Spain

    Christmas on the Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain
    Christmas on the Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain. Jordi Payà/Creative Commons

    Spain's Christmas doesn't end until January 6, which is Three Kings Day, especially important for children as traditionally their gifts have come on this day.

    1. Christmas Lottery in Spain - 'El Gordo' 'The Fat One' lottery has the biggest prize fund of any lottery in the world. All of Spain stops for the big draw on December 22 and the lottery, which tends to be played in syndicates as the price of tickets is so high, has turned around the fortunes of whole villages.

    2. Christmas Markets Spain gets in on the act of Christmas markets, with many major squares in Spain filled up with Christmassy trinkets in December. The best place to go in Spain for Christmas markets is Barcelona, because of its unique Catalan Christmas traditions that you won't find elsewhere.

    3. Christmas Food in Spain  The Spanish don't tend to eat turkey at Christmas time. 
    4. Christmas Sweets in Spain Some of the most unique foods to be had in Spain at Christmas is the Christmas sweets.
    5. Visit a Nativity Scene Spain goes to a lot of effort with its nativity scenes ('Belem' in Spanish, which means Bethlehem).

    6. Eat Twelve Grapes at the Stroke of Midnight on New Years Eve

    7. Receive gifts (or at least some candy) from the Three Kings

    8. Skiing in Spain Yes, it's possible to go skiing in Spain!

    Where to Go in Spain for Christmas

    • For Lots to Do: As much of Spain shuts down at Christmas time in Spain, you'll need to visit one of the bigger cities to be sure of things to do. Try Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia or Malaga.

    • For Warm Weather: The south coast of Spain will be the warmest at Christmas, but don't expect beach weather! The Costa del Sol, the Canary Islands and Malaga are the best places for winter sun in Spain.

    • For a White Christmas: White Christmas is not likely in Spain's cities. The most likely place for a white Christmas would be at a ski resort, particularly in the Pyrenees. Spain's coldest cities are Burgos and Leon, with Cuenca close behind. None of these have had a white Christmas any time recently.

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  • 03 of 05

    Christmas Eve in Spain

    A life-sized Christmas scene in front of the Museo de Ceramico.
    Feargus Cooney / Getty Images

    Christmas Eve in Spain is a family affair. Most bars will be closed and there won't be many restaurants open. If you can get yourself invited to a family then accept, but you're more likely to be offered their youngest daughter's hand in marriage than get an invitation to this most sacred of family events.

    For details of what a Spanish Christmas Eve meal consists of, see Christmas Food in Spain.

    Proceedings are interrupted at midnight by the chimes of the local church, calling worshipers to the '​misa del gallo' (Mass of the Rooster), so named because it is said that a rooster crowded on the night Jesus was born.

    The biggest 'misa del gallo' is at the Benedictine monastery at Montserrat near Barcelona.

    Adults exchange gifts in Christmas Eve and kids will often get a little something, but the young 'uns have to wait until January 6 for that new Playstation.

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  • 04 of 05

    Christmas Day in Spain

    Cagatios in Barcelona, Spain
    Cagatios in Barcelona, Spain. Valerie Hinojosa/Creative Commons

    Christmas Day in Spain is nowhere near as important as it is in some other parts of the world. The Spanish have their Christmas meal on Christmas Eve, while the poor children have to wait until Three Kings Day to get their presents.

    Like Christmas Eve, Christmas Day in Spain is traditionally a family day - couples will normally spend Christmas Eve with one set of parents and Christmas Day with the other. However, in recent years more and more people have started eating in restaurants on Christmas Day. Restaurants advertise their Christmas menu well in advance. It is usually possible to book until quite late, but at least give them a chance to buy the ingredients! To guarantee your place, the morning of the 24th is probably about as late as you can leave it.

    By the evening of the 25th, most shops and bars are open again and these days more and more youths have started going out on the town. Two days with the family is enough to drive the kids out of the house!

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  • 05 of 05

    New Year's Eve in Spain

    12 grapes, ready for the stroke of midnight
    12 grapes, ready for the stroke of midnight. Chris Oakley/Creative Commons

    New Year's Eve (Noche Vieja) in Spain is a party night like everywhere else in the world, though the structure is a little different to in other countries - remember you have to think in Spanish time!

    Rather than starting early and building to a crescendo at midnight, the Spanish see in the New Year sober (well, nearly sober), either with friends or with family, and then go out to the bars at about 12.30. The partying then continues until about 6 am (if you fancy an early night) or much, much later, if you don't!

    Why You Need Twelve Grapes at Midnight

    The tradition was started by some shrewd farmers about 100 years ago when they were left with too many grapes after the harvest, of eating twelve grapes at the twelve bongs of midnight. This is a fun ritual, only spoiled by the fact that it is almost impossible to buy seedless grapes in Spain - in the rush to chomp down the dozen grapes, everyone ends up biting into a seed and pulling a silly face.

    A word of advice: There are four higher-pitched chimes just before the main ones at midnight (known as 'los cuatros') that announce the start of the real ones - make sure you don't start eating your grapes too soon. It catches people out each year - one year a television presenter made the fatal error! For every grape you get right, you will get a month's good luck.

    How Many Times Can You Celebrate New Year's Eve in Spain?

    You could celebrate New Year's Eve in Spain an amazing six times if you really wanted - five times in December alone.

      The first New Year's Eve in Spain comes in mid-December (usually the second Thursday before Christmas). It is the Noche Vieja Universitaria (University New Year), which takes place in Salamanca.

      The University New Year is for students of the famous university in Salamanca who will be unable to celebrate the normal New Year with their friends because of family commitments. The students pretend it is not mid-December and go through all the usual New Year's Eve traditions, including the famous grape-eating!

      Next up is midday (not midnight) on December 30, in Puerta del Sol in Madrid, for the 'ensayo de las campanadas' (bell-ringing rehearsal) (link in Spanish only). This is actually the first of three rehearsals that the local organizers do to make sure everything is working for the following day, but this is the only one that has been hijacked by the people. Again, this celebration is for those who can't attend the real celebration because of prior commitments - or for those who can't handle the idea of all the crowds that will congregate on the actual day (Puerta del Sol is as busy as Times Square or Leicester Square on New Year's Eve proper).

      Later on the same day is the Campanadas Alternativas para Frikis (Alternative Bell-Ringing for Geeks) (link in Spanish only), which takes place at Plaza de Castilla, in front of the Pac-Man tree they have set up there! The Spanish '​friki' (geek or nerd) subculture is quite big. If you feel you fit in to this community, bring yourself along!

      Also on December 30, at 8pm, the town of Lepe celebrates New Year's Eve early (and they celebrate it again the following day too!).

      Then, of course, comes the real New Year's Eve - December 31. You may be surprised that, for a country famous for its drinking, that most bars will be closed on the stroke of midnight. This is because most people spend the time with their families. However, the city's main square will certainly give you that communal New Year's feeling. They do still party, but it doesn't start until later.

      Lastly, there is New Year's Eve in August, which takes place in in the tiny village of Berchules on the first Saturday of the month. Why? Because a power cut in the mid-nineties meant that New Year's Eve had to be canceled, so they rescheduled the big event for August. The re-run was such a success that they've run this second New Year ever since!