Every country has their own special Christmas traditions, and Spain is no different. The country loves to celebrate the festive season with lots of unique customs – and some of them may surprise you. From a huge national lottery to a December Fool’s Day and a pooping log, here are 8 of our favourite Spanish Christmas traditions. ¡Feliz Navidad!
1. El Gordo – The Fat Lottery
One of the most exciting Spanish Christmas traditions is playing the lottery. Almost everyone takes parts in the Spanish National Lottery at Christmas time, making it the biggest lottery in the world. It’s so big, it’s called ‘El Gordo’ or ‘the Fat One’, because of the huge cash prizes of more than 2 billion euros.
It’s been held every year since 1812 and it’s a tradition for the winning numbers to be announced live on TV on the morning of December 22nd. As the winning numbers are called, they’re sung out by a choir of school children. It’s also common for friends and coworkers to buy a share of a single ticket together and split the winnings. In 2011, an entire town shared a single ticket and won, splitting the share of 950 million euros!
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2. The Three Kings
One of the most unique facts about Christmas in Spain is that there’s no Santa Claus. Forget Saint Nick – in Spain, it’s the Three Kings or the Three Wise Men (known as Reyes Magos – Melchior, Gaspar and Baltazar) who bring the gifts to good children at Christmas time. They also don’t come on Christmas Eve. Instead, towns and cities hold huge Three Kings parades (‘cabalgatas’) on the night of January 5th, where the Kings parade through the towns on floats and throw out sweets for the kids. It’s one of the most wonderful Spanish Christmas traditions you can’t miss!
When the families return home, they leave out their shoes for the Kings to fill with gifts during the night. If it’s too long to wait for pressies, don’t worry. These days, some kids in Spain also open a few presents on Christmas day too, so you can have double the fun!
That’s also not the only version of Santa Claus in Spain. In Galicia, a mythical coal miner called El Apalpador feels children’s stomachs to see if they’ve been eating well and leaves behind little treats like chestnuts and sweets. The Basques also have their own, more rugged, version of Santa – the mythical giant Olentzero. He wears peasants clothing, smokes a pipe and brings gifts for children on Christmas Eve, in return for food and alcohol.
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3. Portal de Beléns
Portal de Beléns, meaning ‘stable of Bethlehem’, are the incredible nativity scenes found across Spain at Christmas time. They’re more than just a few figurines in a stable – these are huge and elaborate nativity scenes, with houses, markets, farms, rivers and all kinds of characters.
You’ll see them in traditional households, shop windows and town squares in the lead up to Christmas, and you’ll spot handmade figurines like baby Jesus and the Three Wise Kings in Christmas markets all over Spain. You can even watch living Beléns, where real actors and animals recreate the Nativity scene.
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4. The Caga Tió
In Spain, you rock around the Christmas… log! It’s of the most curious of all Spanish Christmas traditions and it’s found in the Catalonia region. Caga Tió, meaning pooping log, is basically a wooden log dressed up with a face, legs, blanket and a barretina (Catalan hat). Children feed the Caga Tió small pieces of bread or orange peel each evening in the lead up to Christmas.
On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, they sing the Caga Tió song, whack the log with a stick and ask him to poop out turrón (sweet nougat) and other treats for them. Once the song is finished, they take off the blanket to discover all their hidden sweets.
5. Midnight Mass
With Catholics making up over half of the country’s population, the Christmas church services are a very important part of Christmas in Spain. Many people go to a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, known as La Misa Del Gallo (The Mass of the Rooster), because a rooster supposedly crowed the night Jesus was born. Many families also eat the main Spanish Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) just before or after Midnight Mass. It’s a special time for families to get together, give thanks and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
6. El Arrastre
You’ll find the Spanish Christmas tradition known as El Arrastre (The Drag) in the coastal city of Cádiz. It’s held on January 5th, the day before the Three Wise Kings arrive. Children string empty cans on a piece of rope and drag the cans around, making a ton of noise to remind the Kings to leave the children gifts that night. There’s also a story that the racket will scare the mythical giant who tries to cover the sky in a cloud of smoke to stop the Kings delivering the presents!
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7. Roscón de Reyes
Christmas cake is one of the favourite Spanish Christmas foods, but in Spain, they don’t enjoy it until Epiphany on January 6th, to celebrate the arrival of the Three Wise Kings in Bethlehem. On this holy day, they bake the Roscón de Reyes, a sweet bread-like cake, filled with whipped cream and topped with candied fruits and crushed almonds.
A fava bean and a small figurine are hidden inside the cake. Whoever finds the figurine in their slice will be blessed with good luck for the whole year, but if you get the fava bean, you have to pay for next year’s cake! It’s a fun Spanish Christmas tradition and a wonderful way to top off the festive season.
8. Dia de los Santos Inocentes
While you might think it’s time to relax after Christmas, in Spain, it’s time to watch your back! Dia de los Santos Inocentes is the Spanish version of April Fool’s Day, but it’s held on December 28. It’s the day for playing harmless pranks or dressing up in funny wigs, glasses and hats, and once you prank someone, you shout “Inocente, inocente!” And when we say watch your back, we mean it… One of the most popular pranks is to tape a drawing of a stick figure on someone’s back!
What are your favourite Spanish Christmas traditions? Let us know in the comments below!