Christmas, December 25
Madrid becomes magical at Christmas. Streets are adorned with lighted decorations that form a canopy of luminescence hanging over the roadway. A unique theme is apparent on each street, which makes for a fun discovery when turning the corner. Stores and shops play Christmas music, which primarily consists of American songs, and decorate their stores with festive decorations.
Traditionally, on December 24th the maternal side of the family joins their daughter’s family to celebrate Christmas Eve.
Appetizers are first served, then Consommé, then cochinillo (roast suckling pig) veal or duck.
On December 25th, the paternal side of the family celebrates Christmas with their son’s family. Parents give one gift to their children, however children do not give gifts to each other.
The most single important visible display of the Christmas season is the nativity scene, called Bélen, which means Bethlehem. In homes, the creation of the Bélen in early December is often a family affair and they can range in size from small to large covering a surface the size of a ping pong table. Many Bélen incorporate the entire city of Bethlehem and some families add a new figurine or scenic element every year. I have seen elaborate Bélen that have lights, running brooks and watermills. On display annually at the Madrid city hall is a gigantic Bélen approximately 40 feet by 15 feet in size. However, the Royal Palace has the most beautiful and elaborate Bélen.
At my school, there is a competition in which each grade constructs a Bélen of their own distinctive style or theme. One evening every December, parents visit all the classrooms to see the impressive creations. Additionally, parents attend an evening Christmas party at school and attend a concert of Christmas carols sung by the students. However, students do not necessarily give gifts to the teachers at the holidays.
There is a Christmas market in Madrid’s main square, Playa Major, where the most popular stores sell items for the nativity scenes. A fair number of the stalls sold rather tacky festive items including colored wigs (pink, blue, purple) that children enjoying wearing at this festive time.
Polvorón and turrón are the two most popular holiday sweets. Turrón typically consists of toasted almonds in a hard nougat of honey and egg whites. Polvorón is a dry and very crumbly shortbread cookie primarily made of almond flour, sugar and butter. These individually wrapped cookies are pretty and also come in a variety of flavors.
Christmas trees are much less popular than the Belén, but are still seen throughout Madrid with the largest tree being displayed at Puerta del Sol. In homes, the tree is the secondary focus and some families choose not to have one at all.
The annual holiday card exchange, with family photos or not, is also not popular, however, many families exchange electronic holiday greetings via WhatsApp.
Christmas Day may be celebrated by attending Mass at Church followed by a gathering with extended family. However, the anticipation of Christmas is greatly diminished by the fact that gifts are not delivered by Santa Clause or exchanged by family at Christmas because gift giving is associated with the Epiphany on January 6th.
See blog CHRISTMAS IN MADRID
New Year’s Eve and Day, December 31 and January 1
New Year’s Eve is a festive occasion when families and friends gather for long and elaborate meals and parties. The countdown to midnight is televised from Puerta del Sol in Madrid. The most noticeably different tradition is that for each of the 12 tolls of the bell at midnight, Spaniards eat a grape. There are even special little bags imprinted with pictures of the 12 grapes that you can take with you, ready to consume at midnight. As not everyone likes grapes, some are not successful in completing the 12-grape challenge. New Year’s Day is a national holiday spent with family and friends.
See blog NEW YEAR’S IN THE PYRENEES
Les Tres Reyes, January 6th
Los Tres Reyes is by far the biggest celebration of the Christmas season. Commencing on the evening of January 5th, most towns have a holiday parade with the largest parade being in Madrid, concluding with the arrival of the Three Kings: Balthazar, Caspar, Melchior. Adults and children alike become truly ecstatic at their arrival and shout out the names of their favorite king, who hopefully tosses candy your way. In school, students are often required to write papers explaining who is their favorite king and why. The parade in Madrid attracts thousands of spectators and the event concludes at Plaza de Cibeles with fireworks shooting from the roof of the Palacio de Comunicaciones!
That night, children go to bed in great anticipation receiving gifts from the Three Kings. The morning of the Epiphany, January 6th, children squeal with delight at the sight of their presents.
Three Kings cake
Spaniards don’t necessarily go to church on this day, but they do eat a Rozcon de Tres Reyes, which has two items baked inside it: a broad bean and a small figurine. The person who receives the piece of cake with the broad bean has to pay for the cake, and the person who finds the figurine is crowned king or queen with a paper crown that comes with the cake.
See blog LOS TRES REYES – THE THREE KINGS
Valentine’s Day, February 14
This holiday is neither widely celebrated nor very commercial. It is not celebrated at school as in the U.S. and is primarily for sweethearts.
Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter, Holy Thursday and Good Friday are national holidays
The Lent and Easter seasons are very serious in Spain because of the strong Catholic tradition.
I was surprised that palms are not provided at Mass on Palm Sunday in Madrid. Instead, there are street vendors who sell small pieces of palms you can bring to church.
Holy week or Semana Santa, leading up to Easter is filled with processions that transpire in cities across the country, although one will find the most renowned processions in Seville. Individual churches organize processions that consist of hooded members of their congregation, a band, two elaborately decorated 16th century pasos (floats) one depicting a scene of the passion of Jesus Christ and the other with a statue of the Virgin Mary. These pasos weigh about two tons and are carried from below by 30 to 40 costaleros who pay to have the mortification of bearing such heavy weight on their necks and shoulders.
Throughout Semana Santa, bakeries and restaurants feature this dessert or snack that closely resembles French toast. This treat of milk-soaked bread dipped in egg and covered in sugar and cinnamon, which is typically eaten cold, is delicious.
The focus of the Easter season in Spain is on the passion and death of Jesus, which is actually part of Lent. Thus, I found Easter Sunday rather anticlimactic in Spain. For example, on Holy Thursday the cathedral was filled to capacity with Spaniards, some dressed in the traditional mantillas (black veils.) However on Easter Sunday, the cathedral only used a side alter to celebrate Easter mass, which was primarily attended by tourists. In families, Easter is not generally celebrated with a big meal, however some have brunch or another meal with friends that day.
The Easter bunny is not celebrated in Spain, nor do Spaniards color Easter eggs. The Easter season corresponds to the start of the bullfighting season in Madrid on Palm Sunday and in Seville on Easter Sunday.
See blog SEMANA SANTA IN SEVILLE
Labor Day, May 1
This national holiday is a day when no one works, but does not have any traditional event associated with it.
Feast of Saint Isidro, May 15
Every city has a patron saint and on that saint’s feast day, the city celebrates with an official holiday when schools and most businesses are closed. Madrid has both a male and female patron saint and May 15 is the feast of the male patron saint, Saint Isidro. On this day you will find many outdoor festivities, free concerts, food stalls, amusement rides, and even outdoor dances. Some of the local inhabitants dress up wearing traditional costumes.
During this same time, from early May to early June, the Madrid bull ring holds a month-long bull fighting festival called the Feria de San Isidro, which draws the best matadors and the largest crowds of the year.
Feast of the Assumption, August 15
This Marian feast day celebrating the Virgin Mary’s assumption into heaven is marked by outdoor processions in which a statue of the mother of Jesus with flowers and candles is carried on a platform through the streets.
Spain’s National Holiday, October 12
Unlike the American Forth of July, Spain’s national holiday is marked with a large military parade, but is known to provide the Spaniards with a nice long weekend if it falls in the middle of the week. They like to “bridge” a holiday from Wednesday or Thursday until the weekend and call it a “puente.”
Halloween, October 31
Initially, I was excited about the upcoming holiday as I saw restaurants put out spooky decorations and variety stores promote scary costumes. However, when the day arrived, Halloween was not celebrated at school, nor was there any trick or treating. It appears more popular with the bar crowd and only morbid, scary outfits are worn. Despite explaining the fun in carving a pumpkin, putting on a costume as innocent as little red riding hood, and collecting a bag full of candy, many of my friends’ families reject this holiday as sacrilegious.
All Saints Day, November 1
All Saint’s Day, is a National Holiday of religious origin to celebrate all the souls in heaven.
Feast of Almudena, November 9th
This day celebrates the female patron saint of Madrid, the Virgin Mary of Almudena. This a very festive holiday in Madrid that begins with a huge outdoor Mass in Plaza Mayor followed by a procession with the statue of the Virgin Mary of Almudena. The statue makes it way to the cathedral, where the statue is placed in an outdoor chapel covered in flowers that are offerings from the faithful.
That day, Madrileños (people of Madrid) eat a special round cake with a hidden miniature statue of the virgin of Almudena. The person lucky enough to receive the slide of cake with the statue, gets to wear a gold crown (that comes with the cake when purchased).
See blog LA ALMUDENA – MADRID’S FEAST DAY
Constitution Day, December 6th
This national holiday celebrates the creation of the constitution and the groundwork of Spanish law. This holiday has no fanfare, but because it is so close to the next holiday, December 7th often becomes a work and school holiday.
Immaculate Conception, December 8th
The Immaculate Conception celebrates the Virgin Mother’s conception, and is a national holiday.