Christmas is a very festive and religious time in Spain. Christmas Eve is known as Nochebuena or "the Good Night." On Christmas Eve, as night falls and stars come out, small oil lamps are lit in the windows of every house. The Christmas Eve gaiety is interrupted at midnight be the ringing of bells calling the families to "La Misa Del Gallo" (The Mass of the Rooster). The most beautiful of these candlelight services is held at the monastery of Montserrat, high in the mountain near Barcelona, which is highlighted by a boy's choir describes as performing the Mass in "one pure voice."
After Midnight Mass and Christmas Dinner, streets fill with dancers and onlookers. There is a special Christmas dance called the Jota. People dance in the streets and in their homes to the sound of guitars and castanets.
It is a time for family members to gather together to rejoice and feast around the Nativity scenes that are present in nearly every home. A traditional Christmas treat is turron, a kind of almond candy. Other traditions include incredibly elaborate "Nacimiento" (nativity scenes), Christmas trees, and remarkable Christmas markets scattered among villages and cities with piles of fruits, flowers, marzipan and other sweets, candles, decorations and hand-made Christmas gifts. Most homes have a manger, like cathedrals and churches. These are complete with carved figures. During the weeks before Christmas, families gather around their manger to sing, whilst children play tambourines and dance. The Spanish especially honor the cow at Christmas because it is thought that when Mary gave birth to Jesus the cow in the stable breathed on the Baby Jesus to keep him warm.
Christmas dinner is never eaten until after midnight. It is a family feast, and often highlighted with "Pavo Trufado de Navidad" (Christmas turkey with truffles; truffles are a mushroom-like delicacy found underground). After the meal, family members gather around the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols and hymns of Christendom. The rejoicing continues through the wee hours of the morning.
An old Spanish verse says...
"Esta noche es Noche-Buena, Y no es noche de dormir" (This is the goodnight, therefore it is not meant for sleep.)
Christmas Day is spent at church, at feasts and in more merry-making. A custom peculiar to Spain is that of "swinging." Sings are set up throughout the courtyards and young people swing to the accompaniment of songs and laughter.
It is not Santa who comes to Spain bearing gifts, but the Three Wise Men. The Spanish Christmas continues for a few weeks after Dec. 25th. Children think of the Three Wise Man as the gift bearers. Tradition has it that they arrive on January 6th, the date the Wise Men gave gifts to Jesus. On the Eve of Epiphany, January 5th, children place their shoes on the doorstep, and in the secret of the night, the Three Wise Men pass leaving gifts. January 6th, Epiphany is heralded with parades in various cities where candy and cakes are distributed to throngs of children.
Shoes are filled with straw or barley for the tired camels that must carry their riders through the busy night. By morning the camel food is gone and in place of the straw or barley are presents. Shoes also may be placed on balconies on the night of the 6th January in the hope that the Wise Men will fill them with gifts.
On the 7th, with a rude awakening, Spain returns to some semblance of normality. Schools re-open, the wheels of business trundle into action and los espaņoles (the Spanish) look forward to the next fiesta!
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