When you combine a magical time of year (winter) and a magical setting (every corner of Spain, pretty much), you’re guaranteed to feel like you’ve stepped into a fairy tale.
That being said, trying to figure out how to have the most authentic holiday experience in a new country can be confusing when you don’t know what the local traditions are (or how to take part in them). These authentic holiday traditions in Spain will help you make the most of the holiday season. They’re things that you’ll find locals partaking in year after year, so join the fun and celebrate!
Common traditions throughout Spain
Some of the most popular authentic holiday traditions in Spain are prevalent no matter where you go in the country. Here are a few of our personal favorites!
Eating grapes on New Year’s Eve
Starting the new year by immediately shoving 12 grapes into your mouth in rapid succession is something so very Spanish. Legend says that eating one grape for each stroke of the clock at midnight on January 1 will bring good luck in the new year. Join in on the fun by heading to one of the large public gatherings that take place in most cities (such as at Puerta del Sol in Madrid or Plaza Nueva in Seville) to eat your grapes and welcome the new year with locals.
Watching the Cabalgata de Reyes
Who brings presents during the holiday season? If you’re about to say Santa Claus, think again—here in Spain, the beloved gift-givers are actually the biblical Three Kings (reyes magos)! On the morning of January 6, children across the country wake up eager to see what gifts the kings have left for them. However, in most places the fun starts the day before as the kings make their way throughout the city in a special parade known as the cabalgata de Reyes. Children and adults alike love having the opportunity to greet the kings as they arrive in town—make your way to the parade and enjoy one of the most authentic holiday traditions in Spain! (Just watch out for the flying candy.)
Snack on late-night churros and chocolate
Personally, we’re of the opinion that there’s really no bad time of year to enjoy churros and chocolate, but the crispy sticks of fried-to-perfection dough and perfectly rich hot chocolate make the Christmas season especially cozy. At this time of year, you’ll often find locals enjoying them as a midnight (or after-midnight) snack. If we could only partake in one of the many authentic holiday traditions in Spain, we’d have to choose this one!
Watch the Christmas lottery
If you stop into your neighborhood bar for a cup of coffee on the morning of December 22 and see that the TV is turned to a channel featuring children singing seemingly random numbers, don’t be alarmed. They’re just announcing the winners of the Christmas lottery, one of Spain’s most important holiday traditions. Even if you didn’t have the chance to buy a décimo, stick around for a while and watch the show with the locals in the bar.
See the Christmas lights
All of Spain’s major cities (and even most small towns) get decked out to the nines come December. The streets are filled with stunning displays of holiday lights that will take your breath away. One of our favorite authentic holiday traditions in Spain is to take an evening stroll and marvel at the gorgeous illuminations. If you get cold, stop along the way for a warm and toasty snack, like castañas asadas (roasted chestnuts) from a local street vendor.
Spain’s capital turns into a verifiable winter wonderland during the holiday season. There may not be snow, but you’ll hardly notice the lack of it when you’re surrounded by so much breathtaking beauty.
Ride the Christmas bus
Don’t feel like walking around in the cold, but still want to see the lights? Hop on board the Navibus, a special bus that makes its way through the streets most evenings throughout December in Madrid. You’ll be able to see all the best views of the lights from the comfy, warm double-decker bus. There’s even a live show that goes on throughout the trip, so you’ll have plenty of entertainment! We recommend reserving your tickets for this popular activity online.
Check out the “pre-uvas” festivities in Puerta del Sol
Have other plans for New Year’s Eve, but still want to see what all the fuss is about in Puerta del Sol? Head to the iconic plaza on December 30 for a dress rehearsal, the pre-uvas (literally, “pre-grapes”). 24 hours before the event itself, hundreds of people pack into the square to practice. The only difference is that many people will actually be eating 12 M&Ms rather than grapes (legend says that eating the 12 grapes before the new year itself is bad luck!).
Holiday shopping in Madrid
Madrid’s wide, gleaming avenues and hidden backstreets are full of all kinds of shops selling one-of-a-kind holiday gifts. If you’re looking for something completely unique, skip the tacky souvenir shops and head to La Intrusa. The fashion and design shop is full of treasures made by local designers, featuring everything from handcrafted jewelry to beautiful clothes and even housewares.
As Spain’s second-largest city and one of Europe’s most glam destinations, Barcelona seamlessly blends Spanish favorites with unique Catalan traditions during the holiday season.
Check out the caganers at a local Christmas market
Here in Spain, nativity scenes truly get taken to the next level, often depicting the entire town of Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’s birth. In Barcelona, however, you’ll often see a figure that doesn’t appear in the biblical version of the story: the caganer. This little figurine is of a person dropping their pants and relieving themselves in the middle of Bethlehem. In the past, caganers were nondescript figures representing random villagers, but today anyone in the public eye is fair game. As you browse the stalls at a Christmas market, keep your eyes peeled for these hilarious little figures and see how many celebs you can recognize.
Feast on traditional Catalan delicacies on St. Steven’s Day
Throughout much of Spain, the traditional Christmas meal takes place on nochebuena, or Christmas Eve. That’s not the case in many places in Catalonia. Instead, families gather to enjoy a delicious feast on December 26, which is St. Steven’s Day. Many restaurants in Barcelona are open that day, so stop in and enjoy everything from Catalan canelones to rich, hearty stews.
Holiday shopping in Barcelona
It’s no secret that Barcelona is suffering from an overtourism problem, and part of that has to do with the fact that many visitors don’t ensure that their money goes back into the local economy. Be a responsible visitor and stop into a local artisanal shop, like OMG BCN. Everything in the store—from the stylish clothing and accessories to the adorable stationery—was created by local designers!
The passion of Andalusia and the magic of the holiday season make Seville one of Spain’s most gorgeous destinations this winter.
Check out the Feria del Belén
An entire Christmas market dedicated to nothing but nativity scene figures? Only in Seville! The Feria del Belén takes over Avenida de la Constitución every year starting in mid-November and lasting until just before Christmas. Browse the handmade figurines at the stalls and you’ll find hundreds of unique additions to your nativity scene that you never knew you needed.
Holiday shopping in Seville
Nothing encapsulates the color and beauty of southern Spain like the traditional hand-painted tiles that are ubiquitous throughout Seville. Bring a piece of Andalusia home with you by stopping into Cerámica Ruiz and selecting a one-of-a-kind piece that will brighten up your home.
The Basque Country’s fascinating heritage and culture mean that cities like San Sebastian are home to holiday traditions and celebrations you won’t find anywhere else in Spain.
Celebrate St. Thomas’s Day at a citywide market
One of our all-time favorite authentic holiday traditions in Spain is completely unique to San Sebastian. On the feast of St. Thomas, December 21, the entire city transforms into a traditional farmers’ market. Streets and plazas throughout town will be lined with stands selling fresh produce and tasty Basque delicacies, especially txistorra (a local sausage similar to chorizo). Just don’t forget to wash it down with plenty of cider.
Say “kaixo” to Olentzero and Mari Domingi
The Three Kings are still important holiday figures in San Sebastian, but you’ll also see some new faces. In the Basque Country, many kids also get presents from Olentzero, a jolly holiday character traditionally depicted as a Basque peasant. On December 24, children from all around San Sebastian go to the city center to say hello to Olentzero and his wife Mari Domingi and tell them what gifts they want. Be sure to stop by and get a glimpse at these local holiday icons!
Holiday shopping in San Sebastian
We’re willing to bet that nobody on your list will be expecting a handcrafted Basque artisanal gift, but we think they’ll be pleasantly surprised. Alboka Artesanía in Plaza de la Constitución will have everything you’re looking for: clothes, decorations and so much more, all made by local artisans.
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Life is too short to speak one language and stay in one place. In 2015, this philosophy took her from familiar Ohio to sunny southern Spain. Usually drinking tinto de verano, reading Lorca, or attempting to dance flamenco (not all at once). Follow her blog, Viatic Couture, for more.