The weird and wonderful Christmas traditions celebrated across Spain
From Catalonia's 'crapping log' to the Basque Country's very own version of Santa Claus, The Local guides you through the weird and wonderful world of Spanish Christmas.
Published: 21 December 2015 17:05 CET
Catalonia's Tió de Nadal. Photo: Josep Ma. Rosell/Flickr
The Basque 'Father Christmas'
Photo: Igotz Ziarreta/Flickr
Move over Santa because there's a fatter, more rugged version of you living in northern Spain. The Olentzero, as this pipe-smoking farmer-like legend is known, became the alternative to Santa Claus and the Three Wise Men for more militant Basque parents in the 1970s. Nowadays he tends to work in partnership with his ‘foreign’ present givers in most Basque households.
Spain’s Christmas lottery
It is the biggest in the world and has been held without interruption since 1812. In fact, even during the country’s civil war from 1936 to 1939, the ‘Fat One’ (El Gordo in Spanish) still kept its grip on Spaniards. What was unusual was that Republicans and Nationalists held their own separate draws.
Christmas ‘crapping’ log
Photo: Josep Ma. Rosell/Flickr
You may have read recently about Catalonia’s caganers, holiday season figurines which depict bare-bottom celebrities defecating. Catalans also have Tió de Nadal, a jolly Christmas log which they stick in the fireplace every Christmas Eve. Tradition says you must order Tío Nadal to defecate while spanking him with a stick. The ever-smiling tree trunk then waits for all the kids to go to bed before bringing them their presents.
The Three Wise Men were Spanish
That’s what Pope Benedict XVI claims in his 2012 book ‘Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives’. Ratzinger not only sets the record straight vis-a-vis the animals in the manger (no ox or donkey apparently), he also states that Melchior, Gaspar and Baltasar were from the southern Spanish region of Andalusia rather than just from ‘The East’.
Wakey, wakey Three Kings
Every January 5th, children in the southern Spanish city of Algeciras tie dozens of cans together and drag them through the streets causing an almighty racket. The reason for this ear-splitting tradition? To scare a legendary giant who tries to cover the sky in a thick cloud of smoke to stop the Three Wise Men from delivering the children’s presents.
Grappling with grapes
Photo: Chris Oakley/Flickr
If you’ve celebrated New Year’s Eve in Spain, you may have spotted how locals scoff up 12 grapes as the clock strikes midnight. The ’12 uvas’ tradition is said to have begun at the start of the century when vine growers in Alicante (eastern Spain) had such an abundant harvest that they had to come up with a way of selling the grapes before they went off. The custom has now spread to many Latin American countries as a way of bringing prosperity for the year to come.
Sing when you’re winning
Orphans brought up at Madrid’s San Ildefonso School have been responsible for singing out the winning Christmas lottery numbers since 1771. Nobody knows exactly how such a peculiar way of calling the numbers came about, but legend has it that San Ildefonso’s orphans once chanted prayers through the streets of Madrid for alms. They were then chosen for Spain's Christmas lottery because as orphans they were considered to be less prone to cheating.
Too much of a sweet thing
Photo: Mover el Bigote/Flickr
Spain's Roscón de Reyes is a traditional cake families eat every January 6th (Epiphany). Be warned: this festive treat comes with the hidden ability of making your teeth crumble, and we’re not talking about sugar. Every Roscón has a metal/plastic figurine inside it. Whoever gets it in their piece is crowned king or queen of the table. There’s also a bean inside the pastry and whoever gets it has to buy next year’s roscón.
Why do some Spanish homes have bottles of water outside their door?
Many observant foreigners in Spain have been quick to pick up on this bizarre practice. What’s the reason behind bottles of water being left outside buildings and houses here?
Published: 15 March 2021 11:43 CET Updated: 11 June 2021 10:41 CEST
Photos: Julio César Cerletti García, joaopms/Flickr
You may have picked up on this already or, now that you’ve been made aware of it, you’ll notice it on your next visit to Spain.
Some buildings or houses in Spain have two or even more bottles of water placed at the property’s entrance in the street, usually strategically positioned on either side of the main door on the pavement. It’s also not uncommon to see bottles of water placed outside small shops and businesses.
In case you were wondering, it has nothing to do with Spain being a relatively hot country – it’s no selfless offering of H20 to passers-by or a way to keep the ground cool.
It’s such a quirky sight that in 2018 a Reddit user posted a photo of a row of 5-litre bottles of water lined up on a residential road, asking “Spain. Why are there water bottles outside all the driveways and entrances?”.
The general consensus among Spanish commentators on the thread and other Spanish sources is that the practice is all about stopping cats and dogs from urinating on people’s doorways.
Some claim that with cats the habit stops them from doing their business as they don’t want to ‘pollute’ clean water with their urine.
There are also those that claim it has something to do with dogs and cats seeing their reflection in the water and being put off from the toilet break.
According to local daily La Gaceta de Salamanca, leaving bottles on building corners and entrances replaced the more dangerous tradition of sprinkling lye or sulphur on the walls and ground of homes and businesses in the Castilian city, but this was a huge health hazard that’s now been banned.
So does the water bottle solution work? Well, some swear by it while others see it more as an old wife’s tale.
“We do not know if it is effective, but it is true that dogs can be scared because they see themselves reflected or because the sun causes a reflection on the water and, just like pigeons, it bothers them and they get frightened”, President of the Salamanca veterinary college Antonio Rubio told La Gaceta.
Others aren’t so convinced: “No scientific study has been carried out to check if it works but we know that it is not effective,” Vigo veterinarian Xiana Costas told her local daily El Faro de Vigo in northwestern Spain.
Photo: Valery HACHE / AFP
“Probably at first a dog is put off peeing by the obstacle of the bottle but a more daring pooch will mark its territory no matter what. But I’ve never seen a dog that’s scared of a bottle.”
It’s not known whether this practice originated in Spain or somewhere else, but leaving bottles of water outside doorways or even tied to trees in communal gardens is also reportedly done in Italy, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and even Japan.
In most of these countries street dogs and feral cats are blamed for pee stains left on walls and doorways, but in Spain it’s often dog owners who are held responsible for allowing their pets to mark their territory in the wrong place.
If you are a dog owner in Spain the recommended thing to do is to spray their pee with water mixed with a bit of washing up liquid or vinegar.
Cleaning up these territorial markings is according to veterinarian Costas also the best way to prevent more pongy pee from appearing on walls and corners of Spanish buildings.