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Mount Orégano
Sue Burke
Christmas in Spain 
30th-Nov-2011 11:52 am
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My second-grade niece at Wauwatosa Catholic School in Milwaukee sent me Flat Stanley to learn about Spanish traditions, celebrations, and food, so she could do a presentation. I teach English to Spanish teenagers at an after-school academy, so I asked them what they do to celebrate Christmas. ("Remember, speak in English.") This is what they told me as I reported it to her:


Christmas vacation is from December 23 to January 8. It's a time to be with your family and grandparents and cousins, especially on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and on New Year's Eve, and on January 5 and 6. Everyone visits and has dinner.

Some families also go to the mountains to see the snow and play in it, since there is no snow in the city.


Some families put up Christmas trees, but this is new. Carlos said, "It's like Halloween, we saw in being done in the US and copied it." But not every family has a tree, and they aren't very important.

The important decoration in homes is the nativity scene. They are usually big and are an art form. Every part of Spain has its own style. In Madrid, nativity scenes use moss to look like grass and sand to look like dirt. They also use plants, sticks, bark, stones and other natural things to make the nativity scene look real. Josefa said her family's nativity includes farms with gardens and a river. Other students build the entire town of Bethlehem. (The photo is a small portion of the City Hall nativity scene, done in traditional Madrid style.)

Carlos said, "When I was younger, my brother and sister and I made the people with clay and painted them. We enjoyed it."

A family might put a wreath on their front door, but they don't decorate their houses. Instead, the city decorates the streets with millions of lights. My students said they like to go for walks downtown and see all the lights.


Pablo said, "We eat a lot at Christmas."

Families have big dinners together. A typical dinner might include roast turkey, lamb, or baby pig. The piglet is usually roasted whole with the head on. Seafood is also popular for holiday dinners, such as a big baked fish, or shrimp, lobster, or tiny baby eels.

There are many kinds of candy, cookies, and sweets, and a lot of them are made with almonds. Sweet almond soup is a traditional dessert.

On January 6, which is the day when the Three Kings bring gifts to baby Jesus and to the children in Spain, people eat a round cake called King's Cake that's decorated with colored dried fruit, nuts, and sugar, so that it looks like a crown. They eat it with hot chocolate.


Here, Santa Claus is called Papa Nöel, but he is a new idea from the US, like Christmas trees. He doesn't come to every house on Christmas Eve, and when he does, he brings only a few little presents. Jorge explained, "If the present is something big like a Wii or Play Station or a bike, the Three Kings bring it." The Three Kings are called the Reyes Magos, or Wise Kings.

Beatriz said, "When I was a child I used to write a letter to the Three Kings. I asked for peace and for food for poor people. I promised that if they sent me what I wanted, next year I would be a better person and help my parents more."

The Three Kings arrive in Madrid on the evening of January 5 in a huge parade. All of my students have gone to the parade, and they had lots of fun. The people in the parade throw candy at the children watching the parade — many tons of candy. My students said that they always take an umbrella to the parade and hold it upside down so they can catch more candy.

— Aunt Sue

Free speech for Russia!

30th-Nov-2011 01:14 pm (UTC)
travelertrish on my friends list, whose husband is French, introduced me to the notion of the nativity scene as the centerpiece of the holiday decorations--apparently where he's from in France, or maybe throughout France, you can get whole towns in miniature set up. Trish and her husband have a gorgeous nativity scene, and the figures are ones he's made.

I like, in your description of the nativity scenes in Madrid, the use of moss and sand or dirt, and that people make the figurines themselves. The photo you include is beautiful. Kids must love to imagine themselves in that tiny world. (Grownups too, maybe)

In the town where I grew up, the library had paper cutouts showing the nativity scene (not as fancy as Chinese paper cutouts, but that idea)--and then some paper cutout dreidels, I guess as their gesture toward parity? I loved them, and for a couple of years when I was a kid, I made cutouts like that and put them on windows in our home. A couple of years ago I thought I might do the same thing here, but all I ever managed was the angel (image here).

1st-Dec-2011 09:36 pm (UTC)
Nice paper cutout. An little medieval town near Madrid creates a live nativity scene each year for several nights. The residents dress up and turn the whole town into Bethlehem. They even find a baby to be the Baby Jesus, though only briefly each night because the winters are cold here, so the rest of the time he's represented by a doll.
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1st-Dec-2011 09:39 pm (UTC)
Spain has figurines much like the santons.

A friend's nativity focuses on the trip of the Three Kings. It includes dragon guarding its treasure and an incident that nearly took the kings' lives. "How do we know it didn't happen?" she says.
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