In Spain, Christmas is a very happy and special season of the year. Many of its “fiestas” and observances are like those we enjoy in America; yet there are others which are different and original. Even those customs adopted from other countries are given a “Spanish touch.”
It is rare indeed to find a home in which there is not a creche. Even the very humble homes have the familiar characters of the Christmas story modeled out of clay. At the center is the Babe of Bethlehem with his devoted parents watching over him. A gray donkey and the typical Spanish bull always look on from the nearby stall. The shepherds and the angel are there, too, on the hillside. Also included is the home of Herod, placed at a distance, and the Wise Men from the East bearing their precious gifts.
Every Spanish manger scene includes a small stream where women kneel as they tend to the family laundry, so typical of the scene one may find anywhere in Spain. In addition to the innkeeper and numerous animals, there are sometimes figures of well-known torreros (bullfighters) and politicians.
Once the creche is on the table or mantel it is time to prepare for the special family dinner to be enjoyed the night before Christmas, called cena de Nochebuena. It is the counterpart of our turkey dinner on Christmas Day. Even in such places as Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, the Nochebuena dinner is still enjoyed by large numbers of American families of Spanish descent.
In addition to roast lamb or pork or fowl there is baked red cabbage stuffed with fried onions and peppers, almond and milk soup, baked pumpkin, and sweet potato. Almonds and marzipan from Toledo are never missing. Also the turron from Valencia or Alicante, a candy loaf of roasted almonds in caramel sirup. Grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins have assembled for the Nochebuena dinner, never eaten until after midnight.
Following the feast the family gathers around the Christmas tree which is, perhaps more than any other Christmas custom, typically Protestant, although the idea is rapidly spreading throughout Spain. There they sing the great hymns of Christendom and the Christmas carols so beloved to Christians the world over. The following morning the churches have their services of worship.
Santa Claus as such does not visit the little Spanish youngsters, but tradition has it that the three Wise Men never fail to arrive in Spain during the night of the sixth of January, bringing gifts just as they did when they visited Bethlehem many centuries ago. Children place their shoes on the balcony so that the Wise Men will know where to leave their gifts, along with hay or cebada for the tired camels who must carry their riders through a busy night. Amazingly enough, the children awaken early in the morning to find their shoes overflowing with toys and fruit.