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CHRISTMAS

12 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.

12 weird and wonderful Christmas traditions celebrated across Spain
Photo: Josep Ma. Rosell/Flickr
 
Feliz Navidad (Happy Christmas) to all our readers! If you’re spending Christmas in Spain, here are 12 traditions foreigners tend to find both brilliant and bizarre.
 
Nativity scenes
 

Residents take part in a ‘living’ Belen in in Arcos de la Frontera, near Cadiz in 2013. Photo: AFP
 
Spaniards love their nativity scenes and many municipalities display a public one in the run up to Christmas. But they don’t always follow the traditional format of Holy family in a stable surrounded by farm animals.
 
Some towns stage a “living” Belen – the Spanish word for Bethlehem – with real actors and real animals. But others choose to make a social statement with the scene. This year Barcelona has caused controversery by displaying a modern take on the biblical scene with the figures displayed in what looks like a flea market or “a load of old tat” as some critics described it.
 
READ ALSO:
 
Caganers
 

Photo: AFP
 
The caganers or ‘crappers’ are a popular nativity scene decoration in Catalonia, where a defecating figure perched behind Mary and Joseph is said to symbolize fertilization, as well as bringing luck and prosperity for the year ahead. 

The traditional figure is that of a young peasant from Catalonia, sporting a red barretina cap and a pipe. 

But modern crappers represent public figures of the moment, from politicians to sporting heroes. Not surprisingly, the Donald Trump figure has been a best-seller
 
READ ALSO:
 
El Gordo: Spain’s Christmas lottery
 

Photo: AFP
 
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.
 
 
 
Santa Claus Run


Photo: AFP

Thousands take part each year in Madrid’s traditional 10K charity run dressed in the red and white suits of Father Christmas or one of his elves. This year’s run, organised by El Corte Ingles department store took place on December 9th.
 
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.
 
 
Christmas ‘crapping’ log
 

Photo: Josep Ma. Rosell/Flickr 
 
As well as including crapping figures in their nativity scenes, 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.
 
 
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.
 
Play the fool
 
Photo: Tim Pierce / Flickr
 
Spaniards celebrate the Dia de los Santos Inocentes on December 28th by playing practical jokes on each other (don’t try to play a joke on a Spaniard on April 1st as you won’t get many laughs). Spaniards don silly wigs and glasses and prank each other, shouting “Inocente, inocente!” on revealing the ‘broma’.
 
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.
 
 
Wakey, wakey Three Kings
 

Photo: Cadiztourism
 
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.
 
 
Three Kings’ Parade


Balthazar is often played by someone ‘blacked up’. Photo: AFP
 
The Epiphany is traditionally Spain’s main festive holiday, when children receive their presents brought not by Santa Claus, but by the Three Kings.

Huge Three Kings parades or ‘cabalgatas’ are held in towns and cities across Spain on the evening of January 5th, when children line the streets to catch sweets thrown into the crowds by Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. The latter is sometimes portrayed by a ‘blacked up’ councillor, although in recent years there has been a move to find a Black actor to play the role.

 
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.
 
 

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LIFE IN SPAIN

Does Spain have a dog poo problem?

Many foreigners in Spain complain that the streets are full of dog faeces, but is that actually true and what, if anything, is being done to address it?

Does Spain have a dog poo problem?

Spain is a nation of dog lovers.

According to the country’s National Institute of Statistics (INE), 40 percent of Spanish households have a dog.

In fact, believe it or not, the Spanish have more dogs than they do children.

While there are a little over 6 million children under the age of 14 in Spain, there are over 7 million registered dogs in the country. 

But one bugbear of many foreigners in Spain is that there’s often a lot of dog mess in the streets, squares and parks.

The latest estimates suggest it’s as much as 675,000 tonnes of doodoo that has to be cleaned up every year in Spain.

Many dog owners in Spain carry around a bottle of water mixed with detergent or vinegar to clean up their dog’s urine and small plastic bags to pick up number twos.

And yet, many owners seem to either turn a blind eye to their pooches’ poo or somehow miss that their pets have just pooed, judging by the frequency with which dog sh*t smears Spanish pavements. 

So how true is it that Spain has a dog poo problem? Is there actually more dog mess in Spain than in other countries, and if not, why does it seem that way?

One contextual factor worth considering when understanding the quantity of caca in Spain’s calles is how Spaniards themselves actually live.

When one remembers that Spaniards mostly live in apartments without their own gardens, it becomes less surprising that it feels as though there’s a lot of dog mess in the streets. Whereas around 87 percent of households in Britain have a garden, the number in Spain is below 30 percent.

Simply put, a nation of dog lovers without gardens could mean more mess in the streets. 

Whereas Britons often just let their dogs out into their garden to do their business, or when they can’t be bothered to take them for a walk even, Spaniards have to take them out into the street, unless they’re okay with their pooches soiling their homes. 

There aren’t many dog-friendly beaches in Spain, and the fact that on those that do exist, some owners don’t clean up their dogs’ mess, doesn’t strengthen the case for more ‘playas para perros‘ to be added. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN / STR / AFP)

Doggy dirt left in the streets is most certainly not a Spain-specific problem either, but rather an urban one found around the world.

In recent years, there have been complaints about the sheer abundance of canine faecal matter left in public spaces in Paris, Naples, Rome, Jerusalem, Glasgow, Toronto, London, San Francisco and so on.

READ ALSO: Why do some Spanish homes have bottles of water outside their door?

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a worldwide study to shed light on which cities and countries have the biggest ‘poo-blem’, with the available investigations mainly centred on individual nations, such as this one by Protect my Paws in the US and UK

And while it may be more noticeable in Spain than in some countries, it doesn’t mean the Spanish are doing nothing about it.

In fact, Barcelona has been named the third best city in Europe for dealing with the problem, according to a study by pet brand Tails.com.

Although Barcelona’s score of 53/80 was significantly lower than many British cities (Newcastle scored 68/80 and Manchester 66/80, for example) its hefty fines of 1,500 for dog owners caught not cleaning up after their canine friends might be a reason. 

And some parts of Spain take it even more seriously than that.

In many Spanish regions doggy databases have been created to catch the culprits. Over 35 Spanish municipalities require dog owners to register their pets’ saliva or blood sample on a genetic database so they can be traced and fined, if necessary. 

In Madrid, you are twice as likely to come across someone walking a dog than with a baby’s stroller. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

This DNA trick started earlier in Spain than in many other countries; the town of Brunete outside of Madrid kicked off the trend in 2013 by mailing the ‘forgotten’ poo to neglectful owners’ addresses. Some municipalities have also hired detectives to catch wrongdoers.

So it’s not as if dog poo doesn’t bother Spaniards, with a 2021 survey by consumer watchdog OCU finding that it’s the type of dirt or litter found in the streets than bothers most people.

READ ALSO: Clean or dirty? How does your city rank on Spain’s cleanliness scale? 

It’s therefore not a part of Spanish culture not to clean up after dogs, but rather a combination of Spain’s propensity for outdoor and urban living, the sheer number of dogs, and of course the lack of civic duty on the part of a select few. Every country has them. 

On a final note, not all dog owners in Spain who don’t clean up after their pooches can be blamed for doing it deliberately, but it’s certainly true that looking at one’s phone rather than interacting with your dog, or walking with your dog off the leash (also illegal except for in designated areas) isn’t going to help you spot when your pooch has done its business.

Article by Conor Faulkner and Alex Dunham

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