8 things that might surprise you about the holidays in Madrid
Christmas is in the air! Are you ready?
It’s time to get into the spirit, but if you’re new to Madrid, you might be a bit lost trying to navigate the typical Spanish Christmas traditions.
But have no fear!
Today we’re going to talk about eight important holiday traditions to help you celebrate like a real madrileño. Some of them might surprise newcomers or first-time visitors… but don’t worry, it’ll be fun for the whole family!
And now, with less blackface. (See #6)
1. They celebrate Black Friday now, and it’s four days long
Black Friday’s expansion in the US hasn’t gone unnoticed by savvy Spanish marketers. But in a country that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s a bit of a mystery why Black Friday is catching on. The other mystery? Why it’s a four or five-day event in many stores!
I assume almost everybody understands enough English at this point to realize that “Friday” is only one day. But Black Friday sales in Madrid can just as easily be all weekend, from Thursday to Sunday or even longer.
In any case, business is business, and they’ve been celebrating Black Friday in Madrid for at least the last three years.
2. The crazy crowds in the center
In the evenings and on weekends, the center is packed, all through the holiday season. Some days you’ll have to elbow your way through crowds, and you should definitely hang on tight to your wallet and other valuables at all times.
Especially crazy is the area around Cortylandia, between Sol and Ópera.
Prepare for thousands of kids and parents waiting for the animatronics on the back side of the Corte Inglés to light up and start singing. It can be quite an experience, and definitely not for the agoraphobic!
The craziest crowd of all is in Puerta del Sol on New Year’s Eve, but you might not know that they do a test of the bells at midnight on December 30th as well. A lot of people go to the simulacro for a similar party to the one the next night, but with a (somewhat) smaller crowd.
3. The national obsession with turrón and shellfish
Back in the day, there used to be two kinds of praline: hard and soft. Now, there are literally dozens, and the number of varieties seems to be getting bigger each year.
The origin, like marzipan, is apparently Moorish. You can get them in any supermarket, or for a boutique version, try Casa Mira at Carrera de San Jerónimo, 30 — it’s been there since 1842. You can also check out polvorones and mantecados, two lard-based pastries from Andalucía. (Not suitable for vegans, obvs.)
The other thing Spaniards go wild about at this time of year is shellfish, prawns especially. If you go to your local pescadería from now to mid-January, be prepared to wait behind a long line of abuelas buying prawns in various colors and sizes.
4. Lottery madness
If you’ve been to Sol at any time since November, you’ve also seen the long lines stretching out from Doña Manolita and El Doblón de Oro, two of the most important lottery offices. People come from all over to buy tickets from these “lucky” establishments.
I’ve explained some of the bad math in another article, but of course, it’s a tradition, and the social pressure is high. Ask your Spanish friends how many tickets they and the people in their family have bought this year—it can be quite an interesting conversation.
Also, prepare for most of the city to shut down on the morning of Tuesday the 22nd, as everybody listens to the kids sing out the winning numbers on TV and the radio.
5. Twelve grapes on New Year’s Eve
At New Year’s in the US, the story usually begins and ends with drinking champagne and positioning yourself next to someone you’d like to kiss as the clock strikes twelve.
Well, there’s not a lot kissing here. Everyone’s too busy stuffing their mouth with grapes!
These days, you can even get your dozen green grapes (one for each ring of the bell) peeled and pre-bagged for you in supermarkets. Apparently, with 12 grapes in your mouth at once, the main issue is to keep from gagging — kind of like making out with the wrong person at an NYE party back home, actually.
The tradition of las doce uvas dates back many decades, to at least the beginning of the 20th century. One theory about its origin is that farmers in Alicante had a particularly large and late grape harvest one year, and invented the “tradition” in order to get rid of the overstock.
6. The Cabalgata
On the afternoon and evening of January 5th, most cities and towns hold a cabalgata, a sort of parade with floats, camels, and of course, the Three Kings. Parents take their kids to see the spectacle, and the Kings throw candy to the crowd. Here in Madrid, the route goes from Nuevos Ministerios to the city hall at Cibeles, starting around 6:30 PM.
And there’s some good news this year: the city council is eliminating blackface from the celebration. In previous years, Balthazar (the Babylonian king) has always been played by a local politician with his face painted black. This year, as a gesture to the new, multicultural Madrid, they’ve decided to hire a real black person for the job… finally!
If you’re a big spender, you can even watch from a suite at Hotel Miguel Ángel – starting from only 187€.
7. Los Reyes are bigger than Santa
There’s actually a bitter debate raging in many Spanish families: the Three Kings, or Santa Claus? Santa Claus, or the Three Kings?
Kids, of course, are happy to celebrate both. More holidays? More presents! And I’m sure the shops don’t mind the extra business either.
The traditional thing is to celebrate on the Kings on January 5th and 6th. It’s based on the story of the Biblical Magi, who brought gifts to baby Jesus. Now, the Kings bring gifts to kids at home. Some families leave wine and sweets out for the Three Kings (and water for their camels) on Noche de Reyes. And since most houses in the city don’t have a fireplace, the Kings ride in through the window. Because they’re magical!
But many parents feel that something traditional is being lost when they also celebrate a “Santa Claus Christmas” on December 25th. Some talk about the creeping influence of American culture. In any case, like other foreign traditions, it seems to be catching on one way or another.
8. The holidays never seem to end!
The crowds in the center and the shopping centers don’t even end at Christmas or New Year’s. In fact, two weeks after Christmas Day, when everybody back home has already forgotten about the whole thing, Spain is still celebrating, with Roscón, cava, and more prawns…
And the shopping madness lasts until at least January 7th, the first day of full-on rebajas. Because crisis or no crisis, everyone loves a discount.
P.S. What’s your favorite Spanish holiday tradition? Tell us in the comments!
P.P.S. For more fun, check out my article on cultural differences between Spain and the US.