In this post, Teresa Smith, a student studying a Master’s in International Business at Carlos III University talks about Christmas in Madrid and the differences between Spanish traditions and those of her home country, England. 

With the birth of Jesus Christ and the commercialization of Santa Claus, it was easy to assume that our European neighbours celebrated Christmas in the exact same way. This is so far from reality that I am ashamed to have been so ignorant! Madrid is a beautiful city to be in over the Christmas period; although, they may start too early with the decorations and cheer, but don’t we all? With its luminous Christmas lights and crisp blue skies, it really is a cosy, magical time of year. I’m from England and although there are some similarities between Christmases that I have celebrated in Madrid and back at home, there are three things in particular that I didn’t even know about until I lived in Spain and one that I find slightly odd, but charming!

Christmas in Madrid: The Lottery (the oddball)

Christmas in Madrid, the Christmas LotteryIf you are new to Madrid, at this time of year you will start to see never-ending queues of people throughout the streets, mainly in the center. If you follow those queues thinking that it will lead you to a delicious hot mulled wine stall or Santa’s Grotto, you’ll be highly mistaken. Those queues are for the lottery, that’s right! La Lotería de Navidad. The Christmas lottery has been a tradition here for generations. It started in 1812 (originally in order to increase state income), surpassed the Spanish Civil War and now almost every Spaniard will have at least a stake of a lottery ticket at Christmas for their chance to with ‘el Gordo’ – The fat one. The drawing of the numbers takes place on 22nd December, which in Spain is when we can say that Christmas has officially begun. They are drawn by school children from San Ildefonso which was once an Orphanage School for boys; an idea that was cropped up by Carlos III himself. To this day, that duty is taken very seriously and it is said that the chosen children, usually chosen for their voice, practice drawing the balls all year round in order not to make a mistake.

Christmas in Madrid: What happened to Boxing Day?

In Spain, they do not celebrate Boxing Day! For those of you who don’t know, Boxing Day is the day after Christmas Day, 26th December. It is a day to relax, see your extended family and get over Christmas Day before going back to work. Boxing Day goes back as far as the middle ages; when exactly, we don’t know. It was originally the tradesman’s Christmas, it was a time when people had servants and when society was highly separated by class. Those servants would not have been with their family on Christmas Day, they would have celebrated the following day and would usually be given a ‘box’ of treats, such as bonuses, leftover food, and gifts to take home to their families. It is also thought to be related to the ‘Alms boxes’ that were left in places of worship in order to collect donations for the poor. To this day, we celebrate Boxing Day but the origin of its purpose is somewhat lost, it is now a day of sales, similar to ‘Black Friday’ and fewer donations are given. Perhaps some families will donate a box of old toys, etc., but usually, they will do this within the new year when they have had time to get back to normality.

Christmas in Madrid: 12 Grapes on New Year’s Eve

12 grapes for Christmas in MadridWhat do grapes have to do with this festive period? Everything! On New Year’s Eve, a superstitious tradition takes place on the count of 12 (that’s it, 12, not 10), each Spaniard will eat 12 grapes to bring them luck for the next 12 months. Since living in Madrid, I myself have never missed this tradition as it is a must! It would be hard to attend a party that doesn’t already have the 12 grapes divided up for their guests. I mean, who want’s to start off the year with bad luck? How far back this tradition goes is uncertain, it is thought to be around the end of 18 hundreds/ beginning of the 19 hundreds when there was an overgrow of white grapes in the southern regions of Spain, Almeria, Murcia and Alicante. Nowadays, hundreds of thousands of people gather in the centre of Madrid (Puerta del Sol) to take part in this tradition. It is broadcasted live to those taking part in the comfort of their own home.

Christmas in Madrid: The Three Kings

In Spain, the festive season does not finish until 6th January! In England, we have the 12 days of Christmas, of course, and we know full well who The Three Kings were! But for us, the 12th day is when you take your Christmas Tree down; the celebrations are not as big as they are here. In Spain, el día de Los Reyes Magos is bigger than Christmas Day, this is when they exchange gifts (keeping in line with The Kings bringing gifts to Jesus), they are the Spanish equivalent to Santa Clause. Although Santa Clause has reached the Iberian grounds, many children still prefer The Three Kings. The day is celebrated with huge parades, the biggest being in Madrid where hundreds of thousands of people come to watch and try to catch sweets that are thrown into the crowds. The celebration is also enjoyed with ‘el Roscon de Los Reyes’, a ring-shaped, bread type cake filled with cream. Inside the dough is a hidden plastic toy, it is a tradition that whoever gets the slice with the toy inside pays for the Roscon!

Whichever way you are celebrating Christmas this year, I hope it is full of joy, delicious food, company, Love Actually and cheer! For those of you in Madrid…

Merry Christmas to those celebrating Christmas in Madrid