This is my first time in Spain for Christmas. No matter what country I’m in for the holidays, for me it usually has a lot to do with good local food and drink (big surprise). There’s a ton already out there about Christmas in Spain; the dates and what takes place. I don’t really feel like writing more of that just to meet some typical travel post criteria. Instead, here are some traditional Spanish dishes we’re going to be cooking and some interesting, as well as hilarious facts about traditions that vary according to region.
Food in Spain for Christmas
I’m already excited and hungry for one of Spain’s most traditional dinner dishes for Christmas Eve dinner: El Pavo Trufado de Navidad. Growing up in the US, I’ve had a lot of great turkey dinners for various holidays. This one has that Spanish flair by featuring “truffles” or as many recipes describe them, mushrooms. There’s also a glass of brandy; one of my favorite things to cook with that I also like to drink. The most unique ingredients though are the other meats, which varies according to recipe, but can include all or some of the following: veal, pork belly, lean pork, and jamon serrano or bacon, depending on which you can get. Some recipes call for Saffron and some don’t. I think we’re going to use Saffron either way.
For sides we’re going to make Patatas al Romero (Potatoes with Rosemary). This is going to be easy and delicious with the fresh local rosemary that a neighbor brought us recently. Since we live in an area where granadas (pomegranates) are grown, we’re going to make a type of pomegranate chutney similar to cranberry sauce. We don’t have a specific recipe yet, so if you know of one please share it here. Other sides will include local fresh bread, which is major staple to any Spanish meal, and grilled vegetables or, in Spanish, verduras a la parrilla.
Spanish Sweets for Christmas
Now the fun part – dessert! With all the other cooking we have to do, I’m going to leave it to my brother and mom to bake desserts for when we’re at home. They love baking, while I don’t as much (although I do love eating baked goods). We’ll have pumpkin pie, made with the locally grown pumpkins that our neighbors have brought us, and delicious, soft and chewy cookies made by my brother. This will be spread out over the weekend of course, not all in one meal.
Let’s not forget traditional Spanish treats that we’ll make sure to enjoy when out and about. There’ll be no shortage of sweet Turrón, which mostly comes from the Community of Valencia, and Polvorones to nibble on when we visit the Christmas Markets and nativity scenes of Valencia. Other popular Christmas sweets are marzipans, montecados and, something I’m eager to find and try, Tronco de Navidad. It has chocolate, espresso, and rum – need I say more!
Fun Facts about Spain for Christmas
Spain is actually a lot more diverse than many travelers realize at first, both in geographical qualities and cultural traditions. There’s nothing like the Christmas holidays to emphasize this. The Christmas dinner in some regions is lamb or another favorite local dish, such in Galicia where its prime local seafood. I just learned that in the Basque Country, they have a Christmas character (the equivalent of Santa Clause I guess you could say) who is called Olentzero. This fat, magical man is said to be dressed like a Basque farmer, wearing a beret and smoking a pipe. You guessed it – he’s the one who delivers gifts to the children on Christmas Eve.
But the all-time, most hilarious fact for me has been the tradition in Catalonia with their Christmas character who they refer to as Tió de Nadal, the Christmas Log. This little log is small and hollow, decorated with a smiling face on one end and propped up on two legs. Starting December 8th (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), families feed the log little treats to “eat” and put a blanket on it to keep it warm. On Christmas Even or Christmas Day, they sing songs around it and hit it with it a stick to help it “digest” and drop out its treats from the other end. These are usually sweets, nuts and dried fruits. At some point, a clove of garlic or onion falls out, meaning there’s no more treats and the log is empty. Okay…so are you getting a visual here? Don’t be shy – everyone else was thinking it too. They also call this character Caga Tio, which literally means “pooping log”. And there’s even a song!
If you’re not already laughing, there’s more. I found some delightful Caga Tio YouTube videos of families celebrating it and it seems that some people place presents under a larger blanket so the children find gifts underneath the log as well. But what tops it all is this video featuring Norah Jones singing the song as part of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations Holiday Special” in 2011. If you ever get to experience this tradition, just enjoy the songs, the treats, and try to block out other references from your mind. Maybe some of the logs “poop” out a bottle of good vino or Vermouth to help with that.
Nation Wide Traditions in Spain for Christmas
Across the country, it’s traditional for people to enjoy Christmas Eve by first getting together with friends for some drinks and then later enjoying a big dinner at home with family around midnight. On December 22nd is the Spanish Christmas Lottery, called El Gordo (The Fat One or Big One). We’ve heard people talking about this lottery, even our expatriate friends who are also buying tickets for a chance to win.
Another important date that tends to kick off holiday festivities is the 8th of December, which is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (La Immaculada). This religious-based commemoration of the Virgin Mary miraculously conceiving Jesus is celebrated world-wide.
The Belén is one of the most beautiful Christmas traditions throughout Spain. The word means “Bethlehem” and is the name for the nativity scene of Jesus in the manger. I know in most countries this is represented with a miniature set-up under a Christmas Tree or sometimes even as small as an ornament hanging on the tree. But Spain takes it to a whole new level. The Beléns are very extensive, intricate and many times even life-size. There are entire villages that turn into the likes of a Hollywood movie set, with the local town’s people dressing the part and playing the roles of shepherds, the three wise men and of course Joseph and Mary with baby Jesus. There’s usually even real livestock.
There was a town near where my mom lives in Extremadura that does this on the biggest scales and there’s a constant line of people to walk through and view everything. Good thing yummy hot drinks and treats were also available for enjoyment while being in line. It was quite magical and felt like traveling back in time. Or being on a movie set. In practically every iglesia and catedral the nativity scene is quite large and very detailed. It’s wonderful to see all the intricate touches, from live plants, moss and grass to real flowing water and tiny lights representing a bonfire in a field. In any city or even small village you may be visiting in Spain for Christmas, there should be a nativity scene, so make sure to enjoy this tradition.
The other nation-wide tradition is that gifts are not typically given to children on Christmas Day. There is a gift perhaps on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but the day for gifts is actually January 6th, when Spain celebrates El dia de los Reyes Magos, or the Day of the Three Kings. I’m looking forward to enjoying some parades of the three kings on that day. In years before, I’ve enjoyed celebrating the 6th of January in my mother’s village of Higuera la Real. Check in soon to read about how we’re enjoying this holiday, New Year’s, and the fun food and traditions that come with it.
Have a wonderful holiday season, wherever you are and in whatever ways you are celebrating.