EXPLAINED: Why the Spanish see in the New Year with 12 grapes

EXPLAINED: Why the Spanish see in the New Year with 12 grapes
Photo: Chris Oakley / Flickr
As midnight approaches on New Year's Eve everyone across Spain will be clutching a very important talisman: 12 grapes to bring luck and fortune throughout the coming year.

It's essential for each grape to be popped in the mouth on the dong of each stroke of midnight, no mean feat when you are surrounded by giggling friends in a crowd of people.


“Lucky grapes” sold at a green grocers in Madrid. Photo: Fiona Govan/The Local

 

To make things easier, supermarkets sell cans containing 12 small, seedless grapes, perfect for popping in your pocket and keeping them to hand wherever you decide to celebrate.

But what are the origins of the tradition?

Ask your Spanish friends and see if they will be able to tell you – it will probably be something to do with how it all started with a ploy by winemakers to try and sell off a large surplass of grapes after a particularly fruitful harvest.

That's probably true but it's origins are reportedly more proletariat in nature. 

The particular tradition of popping a grape in the mouth to the dong of the bells in front of the clock of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol has its origins in a working class rebellion against a tax imposed in 1882 by José Abascal y Carredano, the mayor of Madrid.

He reportedly imposed a tax of 5 pesetas on those holding parties on the eve of Epiphany – when the Three Kings roll into town – which meant only the wealth off in the city could afford to celebrate late into the night when they after the free parade in the afternoon.

So the working class decided to stage their own celebration in front of the then mayor’s office in Puerta del Sol and scoff a grape on each gong of the bell to make a mockery of the bourgeoise dining habits.


In normal years, crowds pack into Madrid's Puerta del Sol for midnight. Photo: AFP

But beware, the tradition comes with a health risk

Ear, nose and throat (ENT) associations have for years warned that the Spanish tradition of wolfing down a grape for every one of the twelve chimes that rings in the New Year is not without its risks. 

They've told the public to buy seedless, skinless grapes and are even pushing for the time between dongs to be extended from three to five seconds to allow revellers to catch their breath more easily and swallow properly. 

People over the age of 65 are also considered to be a high-risk group for suffocation during this tradition and so to are young children, especially those under five.

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