The autumn semester is nearing its end. It is time to relax, so put away your textbooks, get a warm cup of mulled wine in hand, and munch on some turrón: Christmas is almost here!
While in Christian tradition Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, many celebrate the holiday regardless of their religious beliefs. Figures like Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas — he goes by many names) have shifted the focus of Christmas to gift-giving, and for many the holiday means general winding down after a year of hard work. It is also worth mentioning that while not all celebrate the Christian holiday, many cultures have their own midwinter celebrations: coming together with your family and loved ones at this time of the year is important to many regardless of culture and religion.
In addition, many countries that do celebrate Christmas have developed their own distinct traditions as the Christian holiday has been adapted to and blended with the local traditions of each region, creating colourful lore and customs around the midwinter holiday.
How do you celebrate the holidays? We asked people at our campus about the Christmas traditions in their home countries — but first, let’s take a look at how Christmas is celebrated in Spain!
In Spain the Christmas period unofficially kicks off on the 22nd of December with the broadcast of the Christmas lottery. The lottery draw is broadcasted from Teatro Real in Madrid where the students of San Ildefonso school sing out the winning numbers. Everybody watches it as they hope to win the big prize El Gordo.
While the Christmas proper starts on the 24th of December — the Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena in Spanish — the biggest day of the Spanish Christmas is the 25th. People gather together with their family and friends for a big meal. What the Christmas meal consist of depends on the region: normally, it is cocido, some kind of rice dish, lamb, or fish. As a dessert the Spaniards eat the traditional delight turrón which is only eaten during Christmas. It is a nougat-like sweet dessert made with almonds and honey, originating from the town of Jijona in Alicante. There are several types of the dessert: some softer, some harder, some with chocolate… but the one from Jijona is the most traditional one.
On the 28th of December the Spaniards celebrate the Holy Innocents’ Day, the Spanish equivalent to April Fools’ Day when anything can happen. The news tell little white lies and everybody tries to guess what is really true, people tell funny jokes, and the children draw stick figures on paper and stick them on people’s backs. If you get tagged, you are inocente!
The next highlight of the Spanish Christmas period is the New Year’s Eve, Nochevieja. While Christmas is a family celebration, the New Year’s Eve is to be celebrated partying with friends. Everybody watches the live broadcast from Puerta del Sol in Madrid, and at 12 o’clock sharp people welcome the new year and attempt to eat the Twelve Lucky Grapes, one for each strike of the clock — which turns into a funny mess as it is really impossible to wolf down twelve grapes in so little time! According to a Spanish custom, to attract good luck for the new year you must wear red underwear and to drink a glass of cava (Spanish champagne) with something golden in the glass.
The last highlight of the Spanish Christmas is the Epiphany on the 6th of January. The night before the Three Wise Men, Los Reyes Magos, arrive to Spain bringing presents to the children. Santa Claus is not very traditionally Spanish, although his popularity is rising due to the influence of North American and British traditions: instead, it is the Three Wise Men, the Three Kings, who have the spotlight.
The Three Kings arrive to each city in Spain: to Valencia they come by boat. People go to welcome them at the port, and then follow them in a huge parade through the city, while the Kings throw gifts and sweets to the children. On that night the children go to bed early, and the next morning they have more presents waiting for them. If they have been good, they will get their presents. But if they have been naughty, they will get coal — of course, no one gets real coal, but edible coal made of sugar.
On the 6th it is a tradition to eat a special cake called roscón de reyes, a round bread-like cake with cream or chocolate filling and a crown on top. The cake hides two secrets: one good and one bad. If you find a small figurine in your slice, you have won! You will get the crown and be the king of the day. But if you find a bean instead you have not been so lucky: you will have to pay for the cake!
Architecture student Francisco told us that in his home country Ecuador Christmas kicks off early in December with Christmas dinners among friends. They play a game called amigo secreto, during which you give presents to a friend in secret for a week or so. On the day of the Christmas dinner, the final presents are given and the secret friends revealed. On the Christmas Eve there is a Christmas mass. People usually go with their family and have a Christmas meal after. Then, after midnight they exchange presents. A popular Ecuadorian Christmas treat is pan de pascua, a cake-like dessert with chips of fruit and chocolate inside.
Francisco commented that the Ecuadorian New Year’s Eve celebrations remind him of the Valencian festival Las Fallas:
“For the New Year’s Eve, we make these dolls called Año Viejo. What happens is similar to Las Fallas here in Valencia. The dolls are made to resemble cartoon characters, soccer players, politicians, and other public figures, and at midnight they are burned. It symbolises leaving the bad things of the year behind. At midnight we eat the Twelve Lucky Grapes like here in Spain and drink a glass of champagne with something golden in it. But we don’t wear the red underwear, we wear yellow to bring good luck — and also run around with a suitcase, to bring travels for the new year.”
Pharmacy student Linh explained that in her home country Vietnam Christmas is celebrated by many even though only a minority of the people are Christians. There are Christmas markets and people give presents to each other, trees are decorated and lights are put up, Santa Claus visits children, and the Christian population goes to a mass on the Christmas Eve at midnight until the next morning. Being together is important, and so everybody comes together with their families to eat.
Linh also has experience of the Danish traditions, as she spent her last Christmas with a host family in Denmark enjoying æbleskiver and gløgg, traditional Danish Christmas treats:
“We cooked a lot of food, like turkey and more traditional Danish foods. We sat around the Christmas tree, listened to music, and we all ate together. They have this one tradition that I liked the most: a dessert, risalamande, which had one almond in it. We all ate it together, and the one who got the almond was the luckiest for the day and received a gift from the host! I think in Spain they have something similar, the roscón.”
Two Dutch Erasmus+ interns Danielle and Celine told us that in the Netherlands Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, is celebrated before Christmas on the 5th of December:
“Sinterklaas is a bit like Santa Claus as he gives out presents. The story goes that he comes from Spain on a boat with his helper Zwarte Piet, and the children are warned that if they don’t behave well Sinterklaas will take them to Spain in his bag! He arrives in November, visiting every village and giving to the kids. Then the children leave their shoes in the hallway or next to the fireplace, and up until the 5th of December they receive gifts. On the 5th there are celebrations with more presents, and on the next day Sinterklaas returns to Spain.”
In the Netherlands it is also important to get together with the family during Christmas. Celine explained that it is a family tradition to watch certain TV programmes and to enjoy the Christmas dinner and gift-giving together. Danielle normally travelled to the United Kingdom with her family to spend the Christmas with her grandma where they enjoyed a traditional British Christmas meal with Yorkshire pudding, vegetables, turkey or pork with cranberry sauce, topped with Christmas crackers, mince pies, and more. This year they are both spending their Christmas in Spain.
¡Feliz Navidad y próspero Año Nuevo! We wish you all Happy Holidays.