The holiday season begins in Spain on December 22nd, the day of the El Gordo Christmas lottery draw. This is one of the oldest lottery draws having been established in 1812, and El Gordo has the biggest prize pool of any lottery in the world, last year totaling over two billion euros!
Family often gather at the grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve, known in Spain as Nochebuena to have a meal together and drink cava, the Spanish equivalent of champagne.
There are no traditional dishes served, with menus differing from region to region. As we are so close to the sea, a typical meal in the Axarquia may be prawns, followed by lamb or suckling pig. What is certain to make an appearance at this time of year is turrón, a kind of nougat made from almonds, honey and sugar. Supermarkets have special displays of the many different kinds of turrón available, although strangely this confectionery is nowhere to be seen for the rest of the year.
Another of the many traditional Christmas goodies in Spain is the mantecado, a type of shortbread biscuit.
After the Christmas Eve family meal, the bells will begin to toll at the village church, calling the faithful to La Misa del Gallo (the Rooster’s Mass), which owes its name to the idea that a rooster would have been among the first to witness the birth of Jesus, and thus be the one to announce it. This is a candlelight service where the children act out the journey to Bethlehem.
Christmas Day is a national holiday in Spain, to recover from the excesses of the previous evening and a typical mid-day meal will consist of left-overs from the previous day, followed by a walk or meeting up with family. Adults may exchange gifts on Christmas Day, but children receive their gifts on January 6th (Epiphany) when presents are brought by the Three Kings.
December 28th sees El Dia de los Santos Inocentes (the day of the Holy Innocents), which is the Spanish equivalent of April Fool’s Day. The difference being that instead of the trickery ending at noon, it carries on throughout the day.
The fiesta continues on New Year’s Eve with La Noche Vieja (The Old Night) when the most important items are cava and grapes. As the midnight hour arrives, you are expected to eat a grape and take a sip of cava with every stroke of the clock at midnight, all the time making wishes for the coming year.
Whilst many people stay in their homes for midnight, in the centre of Nerja, as in many towns throughout the Axarquia, there are thousands of people crammed onto the Balcón de Europa. Having listened to a lively concert during the evening, on the stroke of midnight, the crowd is treated to a wonderful firework display. This is when the party really gets going! Despite the number of people, the atmosphere is always very friendly and I have yet to see the slightest trouble.
The parade of the Three Kings takes place during the evening of the 5th January, when Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar, who parade on their camels, horses, lorries or skis depending where you live, throw boiled sweets for the children. On the night of the 5th January, children put gifts of food out on the windowsills of their homes and, if they have been good, in the morning, the food is gone and replaced by presents.
Festivities end on January 6th, known as Dia de Los Reyes, or the day of the Three Kings, when it is the children that become the centre of attention. Family gather together once again for a meal at lunchtime and finish with Roscón de Reyes, a ring shaped pastry flavoured with cinnamon and decorated with nuts and crystallised fruit. Inside the pastry is baked a small toy and whoever is the recipient gets to be King for the day.
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