Christmas in Madrid

As in many European countries, Christmas is celebrated in Spain with joy and anticipation. The pinnacle of festivities is Christmas Eve (Nochebuena), when families feast on an extravagant meal and attend midnight mass. Santa is gaining popularity here, but is primarily an American icon, and on Christmas children may receive one small gift from Baby Jesus, but otherwise they wait patiently for the three kings to bring them gifts in January. Being abroad for the holidays was extra special as I discovered new Christmas traditions and customs.

Christmas tree at Puerta del Sol.
Belén (Nativity Scene)
One of the most important traditions in Spain is the nativity scene, or as they call it in Spanish, belén. In the beginning of December, many families set aside one day to put together their belén, the focal point of their Christmas decorations (Christmas trees are of much less importance here.) Belenes not only include the manger, holy family and three kings, but often the town of Bethlehem, which is the word belén in Spanish. The city scene composed of earthy materials of moss, rocks, and sand and intricate bridges and streams with real running water shows just how much effort is put into these outstanding works of art.

At my school, students in each grade created a unique belén to compete in a school-wide competition that was attended by our parents. In the city center of Madrid, we waited in line to see the city's main belén, which was gigantic (30' x 10'). The royal palace also allows visitors to view their stunning belén. Our family did not skip the tradition, either. Knowing there will be no room for holiday decorations in our suitcases, we puchased tiny figurines, and with glue and a shoebox, we too contructed our own simple belén!

Madrid's belén
My favorite, a chicken coup themed belén
The book themed belén that won first place
City lights
The most wonderful moment of the year to stroll through the streets of Madrid is at Christmas time, when holiday decorations brighten the streets and the spirits of pedestrians. In addition to large Christmas trees in prominent city plazas, main streets have coordinated holiday lights hanging over the street for up to 20 blocks. The overhanging decor varies from street to street and it is great fun to discover new lights when turning on to different streets. 

Christmas lights on Calle de Velaquez
Sweet treats
Instead of candycanes and chocolate santas, Spaniards indulge in two popular almond treats during the Christmas season: turrón and polvorón.

Turrón typially consists of toasted almonds in a hard nougat of honey and egg whites. We purchased turrón at Casa Mira, the most renowned turrón confectioner in Madrid. After waiting for almost a half hour, our number was finally called and we placed our order. A quick wack on a chisel made our portion break away from the long loaf of turrón. After our Christmas dinner, we unwrapped our Turrón and with some difficulty broke off small pieces that were quickly consumed. Yum!

Casa Mira - where one buys the best turrón in Madrid

Loaves of turrón
Originating in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia, polvorón (from the word polvo meaning dust) is a type of shortbreak cookie made with ground almonds, flour, milk, sugar and butter. These cookies are so crumbly that each cookie is individually wrapped. Although polvorón de almendra is the most popular version, they come in a variety of flavors such as cinnamon, lemon, sesame and chocolate, all with different colored wrappers. The unique texture of these cookies is similar to Magic Sand that is dry yet sticks together until the slightest movement makes it collapse. A platter of these color wrapped cookies is a beautiful site at a holiday table. Initially, my family was not too fond of these cookies, but we grew to like them. My mother became a big fan and she even eats them for breakfast with tea.

An assortment of polvorónes
Dust like polvorón

Christmas parties
The holiday spirit overflowed into wonderful holiday parties and I was fortunate to have attended a few. One party was the culmination of giving clues throughout the week when finally the amigo invisible (invisible friend) or Secret Santa, as we call it is revealed. I particularly loved a large Christmas party thrown by a girlfriend where the main acitvity was dancing. Everyone (yes, boys too) danced and danced until early morning. My last festive Christmas party was an annual sing along, which the Spaniards took to a new level. We were about 40 in total with three guitars, a beat box, maracas, and tambourines. After an hour of Spanish songs, they played Jingle Bells for my family, and our enthusiasm and relief to sing in English was evident as we belted it out. The party ended with a conga line dancing throughout the home as we sang Feliz Navidad.

Some of us briefly stopped dancing for a photo
Christmas sing along
Spirit is the one word that best describes Spaniards at Christmastime.

Feliz Navidad!


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