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CHRISTMAS

Why the Spanish see in the New Year by gobbling up 12 grapes

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.

Why the Spanish see in the New Year by gobbling up 12 grapes
Photo: Chris Oakley / Flickr

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 (or at home this year given the amount of Covid restrictions there are).

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.


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

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 surplus of grapes after a particularly fruitful harvest.

That’s probably true but it’s origins are meant to be 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 five pesetas (Spain’s old currency) on those holding parties on the eve of Epiphany – when the Three Kings roll into town on the night of January 5th – which meant only the wealthy madrileños could afford to celebrate late into the night after the free parade in the afternoon.

So Madrid’s working-class residents decided to stage their own celebration in front of the then mayor’s office in La Puerta del Sol and scoff a grape on each gong of the bell to make a mockery of bourgeoise dining habits, who thought it refined to have grapes with their champagne.

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.


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

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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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