The weather is cold, averaging 32ºF/0ºC at night and 50ºF/20ºC during the day. It may rain or at least drizzle frequently. It snows up in the mountains, and ski slopes fill up with customers. The snowpack provides water for the city as it slowly melts during the next six months, so in this land of frequent droughts, snow is welcome.
January 1: Get up late (see December 31). Chocolate and churros might make a good breakfast. It’s a national holiday, so you don’t have to go to work.
5: The Reyes Magos (Three Wise Men) arrive in an extravagant parade. Tons (literally) of candy are thrown to the children lining the streets, and many spectators bring umbrellas and hold them upside down to catch the candy more efficiently.
6: Epiphany, a national holiday. The Wise Men brought gifts to Baby Jesus, and during the night, they have delivered gifts to all the children (and adults). A good day for an extended family dinner.
7: Back to work.
Not much happens in general. The weather gets slightly warmer. Almond trees bloom, and farmers begin to plant fields.
ARCO, a big-time international art fair, is held in early February.
Depending on how Easter falls, there may be a pre-Lent Carnival in February or March with a parade downtown, children’s activities, music, and a few fashionable parties. Bigger, better celebrations occur elsewhere in the country, especially Cadiz and Santa Cruz de Tenerife. In Madrid, Carnival ends with the Burial of the Sardine on Ash Wednesday. The traditional Lenten sweet is a kind of super-sweet french toast called torrijas. Lent is also an excuse to eat a lot of delicious fish and seafood, especially salt cod.
But it’s not fair to say nothing much happens. Madrid, being a big city and the nation’s capital, always has art exhibitions, theater, movies, music, dance, ferias, museums, sports, and politics to keep you entertained – every month of the year, every year. If you’re not out having fun, it’s your own fault.
March 19: Father’s Day. This is really St. Joseph’s Day, honoring Jesus’ step-father. It may or may not be a holiday. (The total number of public holidays is set by law, and there are national, regional, and municipal holidays. Depending on where each one falls, the specific holidays celebrated with days off can vary each year, and they may be moved to a Monday or Friday. Pay attention to the calendar.)
Easter may fall in March or April. This is a big holiday – in religious terms, bigger than Christmas, because the promise of Christ is fulfilled. Semana Santa (Holy Week) gets less commercial attention because people don’t give gifts, but for businesses and the government, it is untouchable. Schools get the week off, and Good Thursday and Good Friday are national holidays. Many families go on trips.
Those who stay home can go to religious processions to celebrate the Passion – nowhere near as dramatic and famous as those in Seville, but since there are fewer crowds, you can actually see them. The pointy hats and robes worn by the participants, which were copied by the Klu Klux Klan for some reason, can be creepy for Americans.
Spring begins as early as February, but in April the flowers go into overdrive. Visit parks and gardens, such as the Royal Botanical Garden. Although sidewalk cafés operate year-round to accommodate smokers, they thrive on the first warm evening.
April 23: World Book Day. Celebrations include reading the entire novel of Don Quixote de la Mancha out loud. I’ve participated a couple of times.
The Madrid Marathon takes place in late April, with live music to accompany the athletes in the streets.
May 1: Fiesta de Trabajo (Labor Day). A national holiday.
2: Dos de Mayo, a local holiday celebrating the uprising on May 2, 1808, against Napoleon’s troops, which drove them out of the city. (The troops returned on May 3 and slaughtered the rebels.)
15: San Isidro Day, honoring the city’s patron saint, is celebrated with picnics at Ermita de San Isidro Park, concerts, and more, depending on the local budget (not too generous lately, for obvious reasons). The festivities include a month of bullfighting, in theory the most important bullfights of the world, although lately the promoters have been falling flat and big-name matadors have not been invited.
The first Sunday is Mother’s Day. The traditional gift is a bouquet of red and white carnations.
The national football (soccer) season ends around late May, although often with more of a whimper than a bang. Leagues are won by the team that has accumulated the most points. This year in the top division, Barcelona is so far ahead that everyone already knew in January it would win.
In late May or early June, the Feria del Libro (Book Fair) opens in Retiro Park for two weeks: 10% discounts on all purchases, big crowds, and top authors signing books.
Summer festivals begin. The school year ends in about the third week of June. If you haven’t gone hiking in the mountains yet, now is a good time.
International soccer competitions may be held during the summer and can arouse ecstatic enthusiasm.
While Madrid always welcomes a lot of tourists (honest, they’re welcome), the onslaught really starts.
¡Joder, qué calor! (Bleep, it’s hot!) The hottest month of the year, and temperatures can easily rise above 100F/40C – but it’s a dry heat. It may not rain all month.
More festivals are held in and around Madrid and there’s a lot of late night hanging out at sidewalk cafés.
7 to 15: The street festivals of San Cayetano, San Lorenzo, and La Paloma fill up the oldest parts of the city with colorful traditions. Due to the heat, the celebrations really start late at night. August 15 is a national holiday, the Assumption.
San Sebastian de los Reyes, a suburb, holds a runnings of the bulls considered second only to Pamplona. Subway line 1 takes you right to them. I’ve watched a couple of times, but I’ve never run because I’m not that crazy.
Some people have the month of August off from work, or at least a couple of weeks, so they go on vacation. Many families visit the pueblo (rural home town of their ancestors). The city gets kind of empty, which can be nice, although tourists take up some of the slack.
Professional football (soccer) begins again around late August.
Kids go back to school in about the second week of September.
The fall rains have triggered mushrooms up in the mountains, and those in the know go pick them. Hunting season also begins. October is a big vacation month in Japan, so there are noticeably more Japanese tourists.
12: Día de Hispanidad, or Columbus Day, a national holiday, is celebrated with a grand military parade downtown presided over by the King.
The weather gets noticeably cooler.
November 1: All Saints’ Day, a national holiday. You should go to the cemetery and lay flowers on the graves of family members.
A month filled with holidays. The Christmas Fair opens in Plaza Mayor. Some small towns near Madrid organize special holiday events, such as a town-wide live recreation of Bethlehem, camels included. (Baby Jesus, portrayed by a local infant, may only make brief appearances due to cold weather.) Shopping areas are busy busy busy.
December 6: Constitution Day, a national holiday.
8: Immaculate Conception, a national holiday. Sometimes the two are combined to “bridge” over the 7th, and the three days together are commonly called the Immaculate Constitution. It can be a good time to get out of town.
22: El Gordo, the big Christmas lottery, is drawn in the morning. Holiday celebrations begin in earnest.
25: Christmas, a national holiday. Ideally on Christmas Eve, you have dinner with your extended family and then go to midnight Mass. The tradition of Santa Claus has not taken hold in Spain. The traditional decoration is nativity scenes, which can include artistic recreations of the entire city of Bethlehem. The Royal Palace Belen (Bethlehem) is among the most spectacular, but many others are worth visiting.
31: Noche Vieja (New Year’s Eve). Another chance to spend an evening with your family – families mean everything in Spain. To ensure good luck in the coming year, you should wear red underwear and eat 12 grapes with each chime of the clock at midnight; a big crowd gathers downtown beneath the official clock. Family celebrations last into the wee hours, although younger members may slip out after midnight to attend massive dance parties that go on until 6 a.m.
Earlier in the evening, the 10K San Silvestre Vallecano race crosses the city. It attracts international running stars, and the “popular” race includes families and costumed runners – more then 30,000 athletes and joggers in all, cheered on by crowds on the curbs.
Happy New Year!
— Sue Burke