My Favorite Spanish Christmas Traditions

When you’ve worked in retail, you learn to hate, LOATHE, Christmas. May your days be merry and bright? Un carajo, may your days be filled with frazzled shoppers and annoying Christmas tunes.

Christmas in Seville means the adherence to age-old traditions. Sure, there’s bound to be an overplayed commercial depicting Santa or that obnoxious song for the lottery drawing (in which respected singer Monserrat Caballé looks like she’s being possessed by the Ghost of Christmas Past), but sevillanos stick to their beloved pastimes. 

I officially recognize that I’m a Scrooge, but Seville is extra special during the holidays, and my feelings about the holidays have changed since moving here. In fact, I find myself missing all of those traditions I used to despise. I miss having a real Christmas tree and going to pick it out with my family, then moan when I have to set it up. I miss taking the train into Chicago to have lunch with my mom and aunt and sister at the Walnut Room, even if there are lines and my mother whines that Macy’s is NOT Marshall Field’s and we can NEVER shop there any other day of the year. I almost, almost miss shoveling snow.

But, it’s the most wonderful time of the year! No need to be sad when there are chestnuts to eat and Christmas programming to enjoy.

You can forget about the 12 days of Christmas – to spark holiday sales and spending, Corte Inglés passed out their toy catalogue long before the official start to the holidays. Even though many would say the Immaculate Conception day on December 8th is the official start to the holidays, Christmas lights were officially on in November. 

Belenes

One of the first Christmas presents I ever received was a handcrafted dollhouse that my grandfather made. I spent hours changing around the design of the rooms, more interested in the aestethic than acually playing with the family of dolls that came with it.

Where we have Santa’s village, the Spaniards have belénes, or miniature versions of that Little Town O’ Bethlehem. But there’s more than the inn and the stable – church parishes, shops and even schools set up elaborate recreations of what Bethlehem, known as Belén in Spanish, looked liked. It’s common to see lifestock, markets and even running water or mechanical figurines.

The biggest belénes are in the cathedral, San Salvador, the Fundación Cajasol in Plaza San Francisco and even at the Corte Inglés. If you want to set up one of your own, there’s an annual market that sells handcrafted adobe houses, miniature wicker baskets to tiny produce and every figurine imaginable in the Plaza del Triunfo, adjacent to the cathedral.

Christmas Lights

Even though the days get shorter, the sheer amount of Christmas lights that light Seville’s plazas and main shopping streets seem to simulate the sunny winter days that we’re having this year.

Most neighborhoods will have their own displays up in the evenings. Even my humble little working class barrio has them shining on Afan de Ribera.

Christmas dinners

It’s also quite common for companies to invite their employees to an enormous Chirstmas dinner, followed by copas and often dancing. When I worked at the private school, we’d travel to a finca or salon de celebraciones and have a private catering. The same goes in America – what happens at work parties…

My Christmas dinners at the academy aren’t huge productions, nor do we even do the special Christmas dinners, which are stocked with loads of options and unlimited alcohol. I also do dinner with my girlfriends as a way to see one another before the busy holiday season. Many of us are off to travel, so it’s the best moment to dress up, have a cocktail and enjoy the ambience in the center of town.

Open bars on Christmas day

It wouldn’t be Christmas without the booze, so after the midnight mass, called Misa del Gallo, most Spaniards head to the bar to wait out their seafood and lamb lunches. As strange as it sounds, Christmas Day is not as big of a holiday as Christmas Eve or even New Year’s Eve, when Spaniards stay at home with their closest family members.

On my first and only Spanish Christmas, I was drinking beers at La Grande midday. Because, really, sevillanos are a social bunch, and holidays are meant to be shared with friends.

…and those I don’t like

Spanish Christmas carols, called villancicos, are TERRIBLE (though I always giggle over the ridiculous lyrics, like about how the Virgin Mary brushes her hair near a river after giving birth and the fish keep drinking water because they’re happy to see the Savior). There’s always the huge influx of crowds in the center, which makes it difficult to move around and run simple errands (think, American post office lines to order a coffee). And, of course, there’s the question of Spanish Christmas sweets – lard cookies and sweet anise liquor.

Perhaps the best Christmas tradition that I’ve stumbled upon since moving to Spain is that my parents want to travel. We’ve done away with the tree and instead spend our respective vacations traveling. This year we’ll be drinking glüwhein down the Danube!

How do you celebrate Christmas near you? Do you like Spanish navidades?

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living among pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English Language Academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

Comments

  1. Bars open on Christmas?! Hallelujah!

  2. Pedro Meca Garcia says:

    the lyrics of some “villancicos” are silly if you stop and think deeply about them, but no-one cares about lyrics, in fact if it weren’t for you mentioning the Virgin brushing her hair…..i would never have thought of it even if i have sung it a lot through my life.

    i don’t think that fish are drinking water…how can fish drink water if they are already in the water? i think that the song tries to tell us that fish are happy because they see Jesus being born, so fish drink any other drink, say, beer or wine, to celebrate it full of joy….i may be losing my mind by saying such a silly thing, but it makes more sense…in case it makes sense….. :)

  3. I love this post Cat! I agree with almost everything, except I DO love me some polvorones. If you ever ate Vietnamese desserts (WTF, was that an fermented egg in the middle of my cake?) you’d appreciate the Spanish ones a little more I think. I’m envious of your sunny winter days though, and the lights look beautiful!
    Aimee recently posted..Holy Mistletoe! Time for a Christmas Lesson again?!My Profile

    • Hi Aimee,

      What kind of Vietnamese dessert are you talking about? I am a Vietnamese and have never heard of something with a fermented egg!!!

  4. About the Lotería song.. what about Raphael’s face at the end while he does the la-la-la thing? Haha too much.
    Also that is so interesting to learn that Bethlehem is Belén in Spanish! I always just thought belén meant “nativity scene”; didn’t know there was anything more to it.
    And lastly the villancicos: yesterday at my school’s Christmas dinner, I got my first taste of villancicos jerezanos and one in particular really caught my attention. I don’t know if it’s popular outside of Jerez, but here are the lyrics: http://www.jerezsiempre.com/index.php/La_Micaela. All the professors were like “Do you get it??” Haha yes.. yes I do.

  5. Christmas is the only time I don’t mind snow! Now that I’m living in Spain, I always want to have it, but I do realize it messes up holiday plans. (My sister-in-law had her flight cancelled; luckily, she got on another only a few hours later.)

    Mario hates Spanish villancicos. Especially “Peces en el Rio” so I make sure to play it constantly.

    My favorite Christmas traditions in Spain would be all the eating … ;)
    Kaley recently posted..What Is Home?My Profile

  6. If you don’t like villancicos and Christmas carols in general then in Spain you’re probably out of luck as they’ll keep on playing those until Reyes.. if you were somewhere else, at least they’d be finished by the end of year. Anyway, enjoy everything else that you do like about Christmas and have a Prospero Ano Nuevo! ;)
    Zara @ Backpack ME recently posted..Instagram: 13 best travel photos of 2013My Profile

  7. Despite 2 years on the penninsula, I never celebrated an X-mas Spanish or Basque style. Instead I headed for home my first year and London to be with family my 2nd time around. But I did enjoy seeing all the Belenes and the lights. The lights I miss now!
    Lauren @Roamingtheworld recently posted..Flashback photo Friday: A bizarre encounter in BerlinMy Profile

  8. The lights are my favorite part of Christmas/winter in Europe and it looks like Seville outdoes a number of places. Those colors are beautiful. Gluhwein is another favorite holiday-time tradition…as are the Dutch oliebollen. I’m not sure that there’s much of the American tradition that I miss…
    Gayla recently posted..Where to Eat in Barcelona – Near La Sagrada FamiliaMy Profile

  9. Hey Cat,

    Happy New Year. This was my first Christmas in Seville (been here 8 years and normally try to escape) with my wife and new baby boy. It was good fun, especially with a little one in the house, but Christmas just isn’t the same as back home. The build up was quite dull I thought and then it was all over on the 25th. I did really like the lights this year though and it was nice being in a country that wasn’t freezing. At the end of the day it’s a great holiday period for spending time with family and friends anyway. Have a great year.

    Barry
    Barry recently posted..Introducing ‘A Novel Spain’My Profile

    • Definitely the most important element is family! I’d love to be able to share Seville with my family over the holidays again, and send all my best for the new year for you and your family, Barry!

  10. It looks so beautiful there at Christmas! I love the narrow streets. Reminds me of Puerto Rico at Christmas which makes sense. Happy New Year!
    Michelle recently posted..Part 2 and Final Explanation of Why I Named My Blog What I DidMy Profile

    • Hi Michelle, thanks for visiting! Seville is beautiful, and I still find it interesting and evolving, even after six years. You’ll have to visit!

  11. I’m excited to be experiencing my first Christmas season in Spain. My students just told me that the lights around the city get turned on this weekend!
    Mike of Mapless Mike recently posted..7 Quirky Things I’ve Noticed While Living in SpainMy Profile

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