As the festive season approaches, it looks like Lisa and I will experience a totally different Christmas this year, especially since Santa Claus in Spain is called Papa Noel and he does not bring toys to children like he does elsewhere.
The gift bringers of the Spanish Christmas are the Three Wise Men or Los Tres Reyes Magos. This happens on Three Kings’ Day – January 6.
Spain is a deeply religious country in which Christianity, and in particular the Roman Catholic church, is predominant. It should come as no real surprise, therefore, that it has a noticeably different approach towards Christmas than in countries such as the USA or the UK.
Here in Spain, Christmas is not such a huge commercial event. Town centre Christmas lights are not usually lit until the first week of December, by which time shops are well stocked with seasonal goodies. However, it is nothing like other places where the build-up begins as early as September.
At home, Christmas trees are a common sight but they don’t tend to make an appearance until the second half of December. Also, emphasizing the religious importance of the festival, very many homes will have miniature nativity scenes called Belénes. These depict life in Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Jesus and each Belén always includes the key characters of the nativity – the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph as well as the Three Kings, Baltasar, Melchior and Gaspar.
Being such a Christian country, it may be surprising that the traditional seasonal celebrations have pagan roots. On the winter solstice, or shortest day, which is also the pagan festival of Yule, the celebration of Hogueras (bonfires) takes place. This involves people jumping through fires to protect themselves against illness. Pagans have a long tradition of including bonfires as an important part of their Yule celebrations.
Throughout Spain people will not be far from a TV or radio on December 22 as the Christmas lottery is drawn over a period of many hours. Most people seem to buy tickets in the hope of winning El Gordo (the fat one) and the winning number usually means that a good number of people from the same village become a lot better off overnight. As well as three large prizes there are thousands of smaller ones.
Christmas Eve is called Nochebuena (Goodnight) and it is the most important family gathering of the year. In the evening people often meet early for a few drinks with friends then return home to enjoy a meal with the family. This is the main festive meal, which is followed by a trip to church for the Midnight Mass ceremony.
Children may receive a small gift on Nochebuena or on the morning of Christmas Day but the real day for presents is January 6, Epiphany, when the Three Kings brought their gifts to Jesus and, today, bring gifts for the children. In fact, children write letters to the Three Kings, like UK and USA children write to Santa. To children in Spain, the Three Kings are more important than Santa.
Christmas Day is, of course, a national holiday in Spain so shops are closed but it is not a day of great celebration but rather a calm day after the major family festivity the previous evening. There’s another large family meal for lunch or, maybe, it’s time to eat out in the afternoon.