Decadent meals, jubilant parades, solemn masses, whimsical shenanigans, and eating twelve grapes at midnight for New Year’s Eve are just some of the fascinating traditions in Spain during the Christmas holidays. The Spanish pull out all the stops, celebrating for two weeks – from Christmas Eve on December 24 through Three Kings Day on January 6. In Castilla y León, home to Spain’s world-renowned Ribera del Duero and Rueda wines, families celebrate with elaborate meals that blend local meat dishes with nearby Atlantic seafood. Only the best foods and wines will do for these special occasions.
The weeks leading up to Christmas include street carolers accompanied by guitar and tambourine players, brightly lit holiday markets, and elaborate Nativity scenes called belens that decorate churches and town squares. In areas like Valladolid, locals will dress in character and stage “living Nativity scenes” to re-enact the birth of Jesus. On December 22, everyone plays the national Christmas lottery, hoping the season showers them with money.
Holiday meals are big family affairs for Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) taken before or after attending a Midnight Mass, called “La Misa del Gallo” (The Mass of the Rooster). The unusual name is because a rooster reportedly crowed the night Jesus was born.
In regions like Ribera del Duero and Rueda, the meal may start with a buffet of tapas, cheeses, and sliced Iberian jamón – enjoyed, perhaps, with a chilled glass of Rueda Espumoso. This sparkling wine is made in the méthode traditionnelle and aged on lees, which gives it a slightly creamy texture and flavor that compliments the saltiness of the jamón. Another interesting pairing for sliced jamón is a Rueda Dorado. Barrel-aged for at least two years, this wine has a sherry-like quality, much like an amontillado. Spanish sherry and jamón are a classic pairing, so give this special style of Rueda a try.
“No matter where you live in Spain seafood will be a big part of the holiday meal, especially in areas close to the Atlantic Ocean. Everyone buys the best quality fish they can find,” says Chef Alix Raij, owner with her husband Eder Montero, of three Spanish restaurants in New York (Txikito and El Quinto Pino in Manhattan and La Vara in Brooklyn). Popular dishes include boiled fresh gambas (deepwater red shrimp), langostinos (prawns), fresh oysters, crabs, oysters on the half shell, steamed percebes (gooseneck barnacles), fresh tuna and whole grilled rodaballo (a large round turbot).
What to drink? A citrusy Rueda Sauvignon Blanc or a Rueda Verdejo-Sauvignon Blanc blend both offer a zesty pairing for raw and boiled shellfish. For savory dishes using leaner fish, like cod stew and trout with herbs cooked in white wine sauce, consider a Rueda Verdejo. Made with a minimum of eighty-five percent verdejo grape, this style of Rueda steps up the spice character of the wine which accents the herbs. For a fattier salmon or tuna, and preparations such as charcoal-grilling or poaching fish in red wine sauce, a lighter Ribera del Duero Crianza offers a nice red wine option.
Many know the medieval city of Burgos in Castilla y León as an historic stop on the Pilgrim’s Route to Santiago de Compostela and for its spectacular cathedral. However, devout wine and food lovers visit to check out the restaurants and explore the world-renowned wineries nearby along the Ribera del Duero wine route. Regional specialties in Burgos are hearty dishes, such as roast suckling pig, morcilla (blood sausage), stuffed pigs’ ears and chuletitas de lechal (roasted tender baby lamb). A popular holiday dish is pavo trufado de Navidad (roasted turkey stuffed with black truffles).
What to drink? Lustier Ribera del Duero wines pair beautifully with these dishes. The earthiness of black truffles enriches the meatiness in roast turkey; consider pairing with a Ribera Crianza, which offers enough fruit and spice without being overpowering. A silky Ribera Reserva or Gran Reserva will complement fattier lamb and pork dishes.
Desserts are practically a meal on their own. Save room for an assortment, such as traditional flan, arroz con leche (rice pudding) and yemas, a creamy treat made with egg yolks and sugar. Christmas specialties include: mantecados and polverones, two types of crumbly cookies; turrón, a nougat made from eggs, honey and nuts, and mazapan (or marzipan), a sweet made almonds, egg yolks and sugar, often shaped into whimsical shapes and figures. Your meal may end with dried fruits, cheeses and compotes.
El Día de Los Santos Innocentes (Holy Innocents Day) – December 28
El Día de Los Santos Innocentes is a solemn Catholic tradition that commemorates the massacre of male children in Bethlehem under King Herod. Somehow the Spanish managed to sneak some levity into this holiday. Much like April Fool’s Day, locals pull pranks on each other. An interesting custom native to Burgos in Castilla y Leon is “Obispillo” (little bishop) where a young boy is selected to be “bishop for the day.”
New Year’s (Nochevieja)
The tradition of consuming twelve grapes at midnight for good luck on New Year’s Eve began in Spain and is celebrated in many countries, especially in South America and Latin America. Each grape represents a coin; eating twelve signifies twelve months of prosperity. Wearing red for good luck is also a popular custom. Holiday feasts start at midnight with a banquet of seafood and roasted meats plus plenty of wine to wash it all down.
Three Kings Day
The celebrations culminate January 6 on Three Kings Day, also referred to as Twelfth Night or Feast of the Epiphany. The holiday marks the twelfth day of Christmas on the Christian calendar and observes the occasion when Three Kings – Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar – followed a star to Bethlehem to bring gifts to the baby Jesus.
Festivities start at dusk on January 5 with colorful street parades featuring individuals dressed as the Biblical Magi (Three Kings) perched atop decorated floats. The costumed Magi toss candies to children watching the procession. Three Kings Day in Spain is a magical time for children. While many may still be playing with the toys Papá Noel brought them for Christmas, there’s even more gifts to be had on Twelfth Night. Children will write the kings telling them they’ve been good and will tempt them with sweets left under the Christmas tree. For extra “insurance,” children leave clean pairs of shoes on their window sills or doorways hoping the kings will fill them gifts.
And, there’s sweet cake! Three Kings Cake, called Roscón de Reyes, is a large round cream-filled confection topped with candied fruits. A small paper-wrapped coin or prize is tucked in the cake. The lucky person who received the slice of cake with the prize is dubbed “King or Queen for the Day” and is presented a paper crown to wear.
Visiting Spain during the holidays is an experience for anyone who enjoys the perfect combination of pageantry, cuisine and culture. With world-class Ribera and Rueda wines and not-to-be-missed meals, it’s an occasion to savor and celebrate the transition into the New Year and the spirit of bringing family and friends together around the table.