For much of the world, Christmas was over two weeks ago… ah, but not for us. Spain is one of several countries that celebrate Epiphany (Jan 6th) in a big way. That’s when the Three Wise Men, the Magi or los Reyes Magos arrived in Bethlehem to pay their respects & give gifts to Jesus. Although I’ve spent tons of time in Spain over the past 17 years, I haven’t been here for Christmas since 1998. Seems like a special event happened almost every day! I’m thrilled we’re back to normal now, & maybe a timeline of events will help explain why the holidays this year wore me out.
Let me preface this post with a couple items. First, Rafa & I decided to celebrate my favorite holiday: Thanksgiving. So we started one week before the regular festivities mentioned below. Second, this list reflects my personal experience in Sevilla. The holiday season is generally the same all over Spain, but there are some specifics below that aren’t found in other cities. If I’ve forgotten something, feel free to comment below!
Mid-Nov until 23 Dec · Our first sign that the holidays are approaching is the appearance of market stands between the Archivo de Indias & the cathedral. No fruit & vegetables here; instead, vendors offer everything needed to set up a belén or nativity scene. Carlos III brought the tradition from Naples, & many Spaniards spend years collecting just the right figure or backdrop piece:
early Dec until 06 Jan · For the past eight years, a huge exhibit of Playmobil figures takes place somewhere in Sevilla. Lately La Caixa foots the bill, so the display is set up in their main branch near city hall. Each year the Playmobil Belén adopts a different Christmas theme… 2016 was Hollywood with scenes from Ben Hur, Prince of Egypt & A Christmas Carol. 2,000 hours of work & 3,000 pieces were used. I know for a fact because Rafa does the scene design & sets each year! Buen trabajo, guapo!!
03 Dec · Convent sweets can be found year-round in Sevilla, but today the Alcázar converts the wedding hall of Carlos I & Isabel into a showroom for local religious orders. My favorite is the pestiño: fried dough covered in honey with just a touch of sesame. Yum.
06 Dec · Unrelated to Christmas but still a national holiday, today marks the anniversary of signing the constitution in 1978. Today is often combined with the next major holiday in two days to create a puente or bridge… aka, a long weekend.
07 Dec · The city government usually turns on the Christmas lights tonight. Avenida de la Constitución is packed with so many pedestrians that the tram can’t get through:
08 Dec · The Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception is also a national holiday. Churches often unveil their own Nativity scenes for the first time today. Besides a contest for the best one in town, sevillanos revisit old favorites & discover new ones. Some are more traditional, others more “popular”. Of the few I saw, I loved the one that the Order of San Juan de Dios set up because it’s so very andaluz:
Anytime Dec · Adding to the holiday spirit, choirs singing villancicos (Christmas carols) pop up everywhere. Even street musicians get into it.
mid-Dec until 05 Jan · Plaza Nueva houses an artisan market with hand-made gifts. Mostly stalls filled with jewellery & fabrics, a ceramics stand & the sombreros were my faves.
mid-Dec until mid-Jan · Although this is Sevilla, ice rinks open behind the city hall & in the Alameda plus a giant one in El Prado. Remind me of the igloo when temps reach 52ºC next summer:
mid-Dec · Find time to decorate! We made all kinds of natural garland with help from the corner florist, wreaths & an alterna-tree of boxes since several were sitting around in our still unfinished apartment. Rafa even watched USA Christmas specials for the first time! And he set up our own belén… Rafa built —yes, built— a mini-Mosteiro dos Jerónimos to house everyone. Awwwwwww.
17 Dec · Local marching bands announce the arrival of the Royal Postman, playing popular songs as the celebration begins. Mail service is a big deal because kids traditionally write letters not to Santa Claus but to the Magi instead. The band in my barrio played a great rendition of Sinatra’s “My Way” 🙂
22 Dec · Children from a Madrid orphanage sing winning numbers on television for the biggest national lottery, “El Gordo“. This goes on for hours & hours. A big production tv spot debuts in mid-November to remind everyone of the season & create a few tears. Lines for tickets are crazy & understandably so, with this year’s total giveaway reaching over two billion euros!
24 Dec · Nochebuena is time for a family feast as well as the King’s televised address to the country.
25 Dec · Traditionally no gifts are given today although Papa Noel is gaining ground in Spain. At midnight, Baby Jesus is placed in the nativity scene & people often eat a lunch that’s just as big as last night’s dinner. Rafa & I gave each other gifts, but we’ll probably stick to only Reyes/Epiphany in the future:
28 Dec · The Día de los Santos Inocentes is celebrated just like April Fool’s Day in the US. Practical jokes abound.
31 Dec · The Presidents of each autonomous community address their constituents on Nochevieja. Most Spaniards are tuned in to the clock at Puerta del Sol in Madrid for ringing in the new year. At midnight everyone eats 12 grapes —one per stroke of the clock, traditionally 6 red & 6 white— for good luck. Then comes cava & more partying.
01 Jan · New Year’s Day is a holiday where most try in vain to recover from their resaca. We took it easy too.
04 Jan · The Royal Herald passes through town on horseback, announcing the imminent arrival of the Magi. This is the last chance for kids to give their wish list to the Reyes Magos. Marching bands often accompany the herald.
05 Jan · The Three Wise Men arrive during the cabalgata, a big parade with floats. Adults get to relive a bit of their childhood while kids go insane over the tons of candy thrown from the floats. Interspersed among the floats are groups of “Bedouins” who accompany the Magi, dressed in robes & blackface. According to the Bible, all three Magi were ethnically different with Balthazar being “of black complexion”. He arrives last, has the most candy & children often love him the most. Is blackface controversial in Spain? Not really, but quite a few Africans live in Spain now as opposed to the past, so it’s easy to find someone to play Balthazar. I have a hard time accepting this particular tradition since I’m from the southern US, but I realize my upbringing was different. Anyway, the ground becomes a sticky mess from all the leftover candy… never, ever wear good shoes to the cabalgata!
06 Jan · Kids wake up super early since gifts from the Magi are waiting for them… along with a roscón, a lovely, sweet bread filled with chantilly cream. Spaniards love to debate whether candied fruit is good or not, just like everyone else around the world. Let me tell you that when done right, it’s darn tasty… like for our roscón from Manu Jara in Triana. Of course your experience may differ 😉 The King gives another speech today in front of the head of government & the military (Pascua Militar). One big lottery wasn’t enough for you? Winning numbers for El Niño are announced today. In some cities, the Reyes Magos say goodbye during a morning parade.
07 Jan · Most stores choose today for markdowns, another shopping frenzy commences, decorations come down, & kids return to school (if today doesn’t fall on the weekend). Life returns to its regular craziness. Whew. This year I’ll plan ahead for all the meals, big events & shopping to be more relaxed. Right.
Update 2020: We’ve improved the alterna-tree since its inception four years ago, & Rafa has gone crazy expanding the belén to encompass more of Lisbon. I can’t imagine how large it would grow if we had more display space! I’ll write more soon about the tradition of nativity scenes in Spain… stay tuned!