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three wise men

Christmas in Spain: Kings and caganeres

With every passing year, British Christmas seems to start earlier. As soon as the high street is finished with Halloween, Christmas gets going, with all the Slade and tinsel that that entails. Things are done differently in Spain.

Navidad (from the Latin nativitas, also the root of the English nativity) officially kicks off with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated on 8 December. But celebrations don’t get properly under way until the 22nd, when El Gordo – the fat one – is drawn. This is Spain’s annual Christmas lottery, celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, and once it’s out of the way, Christmas spirit is really in full swing.

For adults, the main focus of celebration is Nochebuena, Christmas Eve (literally good night). Nochebuena is a time for families to come together to eat mariscos (seafood) or pavo (turkey), drink cava, and round their meals off with turrones, a traditional sweet made of nougat. Celebrations continue long into the evening, before everyone leaves for the midnight Misa de Gallo, the ‘Rooster’s Mass’.

A surprise visitor in Bethlehem

Many households, churches, and public places have their own belén, or nativity scene, named after the Spanish name for Bethlehem. These scenes can range from simple living room constructions all the way to complex dioramas taking months to plan and build.

Catalan and Valencian tradition requires an extra visitor to the belén: the caganer. This small figure hides in a corner, crouches down with his trousers at his ankles, and ‘relieves himself’. While these are often shepherds or kings, why limit yourself? If you’ve been looking for your very own Sarah Palin caganer, today’s your lucky day.

Catalans are very attached to the caganer. In 2005 the council of Barcelona commissioned a belén without a caganer, claiming that it flew in the face of their latest sanitation requirements. This was seen by the public as the council riding roughshod over centuries of Catalonian tradition, and the caganer was brought back in 2006.

Melchor, Gaspar, y Baltasar

The unsung heroes of Navidad are the Reyes Magos, the ‘magician kings’ who are the Spanish equivalents of the three wise men. Because of the influence of Hollywood, Papá Noel has picking up more fans year on year, but centros comerciales remain more likely to host thrones than grottos.

Spanish kids write letters to the Reyes, letting them know which presents they’d like, and assuring them that they’ll behave well in the coming year. In recent years, the Reyes have been known to accept emails, and they now even have their own website.

On the night of 5 January, the children leave out shoes filled with hay, barley, or straw, so that the Reyes can feed their camels after their long tiring journey to Spain. When the children get up in the morning, on the Día de los Reyes Magos, the food has gone, eaten by the camels. Well-behaved children will find presents instead, but those who have been naughty find the dreaded carbón dulce, a sweet made to look like a lump of coal.

Whatever the traditions, ¡feliz Navidad! is sure to be heard up and down the country.

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