The Christmas season remains one of the most exciting times of the year. December wraps a phase, and there’s no better way to close it than surrounded by those we love the most. Of all the special occasions, if there is one that keeps the Christmas spirit more deeply alive it is Christmas Eve. Unlike Christmas Day or the day of the Magi (also known as the Three Wise Men or Three Kings), no gifts are exchanged, but rather everything revolves around two of the pillars of our society: family and food.
Preparation for the night begins days before with the decorations. Traditionally, all houses set up a nativity scene, a small model representing the birth of the baby Jesus with Mary, Joseph, a mule, an ox, and the Three Wise Men beginning their journey to deliver their gifts to him (they will arrive on January 6). From this basic decoration you can find hundreds of additions, from typical figurines in some of the regional communities, such as the Cagané in Catalonia (a bare-bottomed, pooping figurine that is believed to bring good luck), to figurines handcrafted by the family.
To round this out, in Madrid many people visit the mythical Christmas Market in the Plaza Mayor, where you can find countless figurines and accessories to complete your nativity scene before Christmas Eve. For many years now the Christmas tree has joined this traditional decoration, and it is very common to set it up at the same time as the nativity scene for a more Christmas-like atmosphere.
After getting the house ready, then comes shopping for dinner. A few weeks before Christmas Eve, the television bombards us with all the products we’re going to buy. Some famous brands make special ads and even short films where they try to show what the spirit of the festivities is for Spanish families, and often they focus on an important social event from the year (if you’ve never seen any of these you can find them on YouTube by searching: Christmas campaign advertising). Among the most popular products to eat are seafood, cold cuts and meats, that’s why it’s always a news item when their prices go up as Christmas Eve approaches.
In Spain on Christmas Eve, preparation of the dishes begins early. Traditionally, the party was held at the grandparent’s house and the grandmother cooked with help, or not, from the rest of the family. These days some still do this, while others prefer for everyone to bring a dish from home, celebrating in the largest house or even ordering already-prepared food. The same goes for the choice of menu: although we usually agree to begin with cold cuts, such as Iberian ham or pork loin, and seafood, such as prawns, the main course can vary. Many families stick with roasted lamb, while others opt for other dishes such as baked fish, suckling pig or other meats. And of course, there’s always a lot of food, of good quality and made with love. To finish off the dinner there’s no shortage of the typical sweets at this time of year, that is if anyone has somewhere left to put them: polvorones, turrón, peladillas (sugar-covered almonds), marzipan, etc. Don’t wear a belt this evening!
During the savoring of all these delicacies, conversation jumps from one topic to another all around the table. Often we talk and argue about the current situation in the country, get up-to-date on everyone else’s life, give opinions about the latest films, TV series we’ve seen, etc., all in a setting that tries to remain festive and relaxed (although these dinners are famous for people getting carried away by the discussion after a few glasses of wine!).
After dinner, children usually put on a small show for the adults. Traditionally, they sang carols accompanied by a tambourine to receive the aguinaldo (a small amount of money received at Christmas in exchange for singing carols). These days the shows can be very diverse, from more modern songs to magic tricks, whatever the children choose and prepare.
If you are a practicing Catholic, or are curious, you can finish the night going to what is known as the Misa del Gallo, a mass celebrated at midnight in commemoration of the birth of Jesus. If not, you can play board games with your family or listen to music while you continue to chat at the table and enjoy what’s left of the evening.
As you can see, Christmas Eve is much more than a dinner: decorating, shopping, preparing, cooking… all to gather the family together on one of the most important nights of the year and to enjoy the evening with the people you love the most. I hope this year, whether in person or by video call, we will keep the spirit alive!
Want to learn some Christmas vocabulary? Have a look at the article written by Gemma about Christmas traditions and customs!