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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.
 
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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
 
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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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PROPERTY

Why are Spanish homes so dark?

Despite being known for its year-long sunny weather, Spain is the EU country with the fewest homes with natural light, often intentionally. Why is it that when it comes to spending time at home, Spaniards seem to love being in the dark?

Why are Spanish homes so dark?

Spain – the land of sunshine. The country gets between 2,500 and 3,000 hours of sun per year on average, almost double the 1,600 hours the UK gets, for example.

You’d probably assume that finding a bright apartment in such a sunny country would be a piece of cake, but unless you’re renting or buying a modern home, it might be trickier than you realise.

More than one in ten Spaniards live in dwellings they feel are “too dark” – the highest percentage among all EU countries, according to figures from Eurostat.

As far as dark homes go, Spain is head and shoulders above the EU average of 5.9 percent, and higher than other nations with a high rate of gloomy homes such as France (9.5 percent), Malta (9.4 percent) and Hungary (7.7 percent).

At the other end of the brightly lit spectrum, it’s no surprise to see that countries with cloudier skies and darker winters such as Norway, Slovakia, Estonia, Czechia and the Netherlands have homes that let in plenty of natural light, and yet Spain’s sun-kissed Mediterranean neighbours Italy and Cyprus do make the most of the readily available light.

Dark homes are almost twice as common in Spain as the EU average. Graph: Eurostat.

So why are Spanish homes so dark?

Is it a case of hiding away from the sun, and keeping cool during the summer months? Or is it something else? 

Apartment blocks

The vast majority of Spaniards live in apartments as opposed to houses, often in tightly-packed cities with narrow streets.

In fact, in Spain 64.6 percent of the population lives in flats or apartments, second in the EU after Latvia (65.9 percent.)

By contrast the EU wide average is 46.1 percent.

By nature of apartment living, Spanish homes tend to get less sunlight.

Depending on whether they have an exterior or interior flat, they might not actually have a single window in the flat that faces the street.

If the apartment is on a lower floor, the chances of it receiving natural light are even lower. Internal patios can help to solve this to some extent, but only during the mid day and early afternoon hours. 

why are spanish homes so dark

A dark, narrow street in the centre of Palma de Mallorca. Photo: seth0s/Pixabay

Hot summers

During Spain’s scorching summer months, there’s no greater relief than stepping into a darkened apartment building lobby and feeling the temperature drop. 

In southern Spain, and in coastal regions, Spanish buildings were traditionally built to protect against the heat and hide away from the long sunny hours. White walled exteriors and dark interiors help to keep homes cool.

It’s often the case that bedrooms are put in the darkest, coolest part of the apartment, sometimes with just a box-window to allow for a breeze but no sunlight.

Spaniards’ obsession with blinds and shutters

Spain is pretty much the only country in Europe whose inhabitants still use blinds (persianas), even during the colder winter months.

In this case, rather than it just being down to keeping homes cool during the sweltering summer months, their usage is intrinsic to Spain’s Moorish past and the fact that they provide a degree of privacy from nosy neighbours. By contrast, northern Europeans with Calvinist roots such as the Dutch keep the curtains open to let in natural light and because historically speaking, keeping the inside of homes visible from the street represents not having anything to hide. But in Spain, the intimacy of one’s home is sacrosanct, especially when the neighbour in the apartment building opposite is less then ten metres away.

Keeping the blinds or shutters down also has the advantage of making it easier to have an afternoon nap (the siesta, of course) or to sleep in late after a long night out on the town. 

In any case, it seems hard to believe for some foreigners that many Spaniards are happy to live in the dark whilst spending time at home, regardless of whether they’re sleeping or not. 

A byproduct of this? Dark, gloomy homes.

why are spanish homes so dark

Spaniards aren’t fans of airing their dirty laundry, at least metaphorically speaking. Blinds have historically provided the privacy they’ve wanted from their homes. Photo: Quino Al/Unsplash

The long, dark corridors

Spanish apartments have plenty of quirks that seem odd to outsiders, from the light switches being outside of the room, the aforementioned shutters, the bottles of butane and last but not least, the never-ending corridors. 

Most Spanish homes built in the 19th and 20th century include these long pasillos running from the entrance to the end of the flat. They were meant to provide a separation between the main living spaces and the service rooms (kitchen, bathroom etc), easy access to all and better airing and light capabilities. But when the doors to the rooms are closed as often happens, these corridors become the opposite of what was intended: dark and airless.

Navigating these windowless corridors at night is akin to waking around blindfolded.

dark corridor spain

Light at the end of the tunnel? Dark corridors are a common feature of Spanish homes. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

Are Spaniards rethinking their dark homes?

Times are changing, and modern designs are experimenting with more spacious, light-filled, open-plan apartments, especially as the Covid-19 lockdown forced many Spaniards to reconsider their abodes. 

It’s also increasingly common to see property ads stressing that the property is diáfano, which means that natural light enters the home from all sides.

However, the vast majority of Spanish homes are still gloomy for the most part, often intentionally.

A combination of traditional building styles, the crowded nature of apartment block living, the use of shutters, the desire to keep homes private, and the long windowless corridors mean Spanish flats can seem dark if you’re new to the country, and with good reason.

Ultimately, it is worth remembering that Spanish society is one that largely lives its life outdoors. Living in smaller apartments, Spaniards generally spend less time at home and more time out and about in the street.

Native to a hot and sunny country as they are, Spaniards’ homes are a place of rest, relaxation and, crucially, sleep.

Spanish people have enough sunlight and heat in their lives; they like to live, therefore, in homes designed to keep cool and dark.

READ ALSO: Why are Spanish homes so cold?

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