Spain and the Basque Country are small but diverse countries. Along with their differences, come their similarities. I am going to explain next, what a perfect winter holiday Calendar for our dear land would be.
Get ready for the chilly months! ( November to January)
Roasted Chestnuts – Magosto in Galicia
Roasted chestnuts are not just a holiday food in Spain. They’re enjoyed throughout late autumn and winter in much of the country. And, yes, they are roasted over open fires (though many Spaniards roast them at home in the oven, too). When you walk down the street of every single town or city, you will enjoy the special smell of this delicacy.
Instead of apple picking, we go chestnut picking, and we have to be very carefull. These delicious fruits have a dangerous shield made of spikes!
P.S. For better results, grab them with the newspaper they’re wrapped into when you buy them at the street stand, and keep your hands warm with it!
Last Monday of Gernika
Over 100.000 people flee to Gernika, in Bizkaia, for the most important market of the year in the Basque Country. This market is scheduled every monday of the year, but if your visit happens to coincide with the last Monday in October, don’t be surprised if you find more than 1,000 stalls.
Here you can find the best in traditional farm produce, everything from vegetables to organic produce and cheese brought from the farmhouses in the area. But also a big party and good music, as with every basque celebration!
Gernika is not only special because of its market: The Court House and the Tree of Gernika are places filled with symbolism where you can take the oath under the sacred tree of our Basque culture.
There also is a dark memory linked to this very special day:
The bombing of Guernica (April 26, 1937) was an aerial attack on the town of Gernika, causing widespread destruction and civilian deaths, during the Spanish Civil War, raid by planes of the German Luftwaffe “Condor Legion” and the Italian Fascist Aviazione Legionaria. As you can imagine, on monday market day, everyone was outdoors and people from other regions gathered in Gernika.
The Basque government reported 1,654 people killed. The bombing has often been considered one of the first raids in the history of modern military aviation on a defenceless civilian population. The bombing was the subject of the painting “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso.
Saint Martin – ( The Pig Slaughter)
Throughout the month of October, pig shepherds shake the acorns from the trees to feed the pigs to be slaughtered in November and December.
«A cada cerdo le llega su San Martín» is a sentence we use to remind us that everyone will get punishment for their acts. Something similar to:
“Everyone gets their deserts sooner or later” or “What goes around, comes around”
This same sentence, but with other synonimes, is used widely in Latin-America (Mexico, Argentina or Panama).
St. Martín’s Day is celebrated in honor of Martin of Tours on November 11th. It is a very imporant day in most of Spain, as it is the day when the pig slaughter takes place. From it they make sausages, black puddding, bacon, ham…We have another sayings in Spain.
«Del cerdo se aprovecha todo» You can eat anything from the pig
«Del cerdo hasta los andares» From a pig, I like everything, even the way it walks
As you can tell, pig is a very important animal in Spain, and it is connected to our traditions and to many of our meals. Although I do not like the way the kill the pig, by bleeding it to death from its neck ( it is a very disgusting sight), I must confess I love eating chorizo and jamón.
Colocar el árbol – Setting up the Christmas tree at home
Not only that, you also need a space that goes from a small corner to a full room ( I’ve met people who did this!) for the Nativity Scene.
In the schools, Kids create their handmade figures for their homes. We usually set up this decoration around Dec. 6.
Cenas de Empresa – Work Christmas Dinner
We celebrate everything around a table, with lots of food and wine. In times like these when we organize so many family meals, there must also be time for Friend and Work related food extravaganza! These events are very familiar and laid out, as they try to gather bosses and employees together as one.
Company or work Christmas Dinners usually take place in the middle of December. These meals can also be celebrated at lunchtime, and there usually is a Secret Santa gift moment during the reunion. Company pays for this meal, books the restaurant and makes everyone get drunk and lose their shame.
Merry Christmas coworker! Time to get wasted and forget our differences!
Saint Thomas Day – Farmer’s Market
On Dec. 21 our favorite gathering gets started. You’d better be ready and have a wallet full of money for the days that are about to come! The local festive calendar ends on December 21 with the festival of Santo Tomas, prelude to the long-awaited Christmas holidays and First day of Winter Season.
The best turkeys, capons, fruit and vegetables from the “baserris” (farmhouses) of Vizcaya are displayed on more than 300 stalls set up between El Arenal and Plaza Nueva in Bilbao. If it is your first visit to this fair, don’t leave without first having tried a talo (corn flat pie) with savoury chorizo sausage accompanied by a good glass of txakoli wine.
Wine is sold by the bottle and enjoyed outdoors. Some people already have days off and party from 11 am til the next day in the morning. It’s a whole day of partying, eating and drinking outdoors, with traditional Basque Music and groups of friends of all ages.
But the most important thing about St. Thomas day is that it is celebrated RAIN OR SHINE :)
Loteria de Navidad El Gordo – “The Fat One” Lottery
While average spending on holiday festivities by Spanish households has dropped since the collapse of a housing boom in 2008, the lottery has suffered only fractionally from the crisis. Europe’s biggest lottery, the El Gordo or “The Fat One” paid out a total of 2.47 billion euros ($3.25 billion) in prize money this year. Actually, the 3rd prize ended up in my tiny village, Ondarroa ! But don’t get excited…as we say when we bet on lottery and we lose:
“I’m not rich but at least I’m healthy!”. That’s right, the moment right after the winning number is released, December 22 becomes “The day of health”.
This lottery has been held since 1812 and is considered the kickoff to the Christmas season. Instead of a single jackpot, the lottery is designed so that as many people as possible across Spain get a windfall in time for the holidays. The result of the lottery are live on TV all morning, and in every house in the country, you can hear the Niños de San Ildefonso sing along the winning numbers and the huge metallic balls spinning with more numbers to come.
The country holds its collective breath when two schoolchildren sing out the winning number: 76058.
Then, please don’t switch the TV on unless you want to see people popping up Champagne bottles in the streets in every single channel!
Be careful if you buy Lottery, the average Spaniard spends around 50€ /$42, and tradition holds that anyone who is gifted a ticket must return the favor. We also “collect” lottery tickets from the places we travel too, if it happens to land in a different town we visited.
Nochebuena – Christmas Eve
Our Christmas Eve, on Dec. 24 is as important as American Thanksgiving. No matter where in the world you are that day. Make sure you are at home that same night. No excuses. Every workplace closes early. All family gathers and eats until bellies are full.
In Spanish, Christmas Eve is called “La Noche Buena,” literally translated as “The Good Night.” In Spain it is celebrated with a large family feast, which is eaten late in the evening and can last many hours. Before dinner, we join some friends and have drinks around our house to “warm up”.
Our typical menu is made out of different tapas as starters and main dishes. It includes the following:
Chorizo, Jamón, Lomo and other tasty charcutery
Large prawns, and other seafood
Oven Roasted Lamb or small pig (cochinillo)
Croquettes and Calamari
Mixes green salad and cheese
Oh, and what about dessert?
Turrón or almond nougat
Polvorones or almond cookies
Mantecados or crumble cakes
And a lot of strong homemade liquor and Cava wine.
Although the crisis has affected the spender of families for this time of the year, there are still some delicacies that are a tradition, but that not many people can afford:
Percebes – Goose barnacles (80€/kg) or ($55/ pound)
Angulas – Baby eels (They can cost up to 550 €/kg) or ($365/ pound)
After dinner we laugh until our stomach hurts (that’s probably too much food) and we go out all night with friends, or we visit other friend families and stretch the night out.
The King’s Speech – Yeah, Seriously
The King of Spain, Juan Carlos I created a tradition he’s been keeping since 1975. That year, Francisco Franco Dictator died, and the Kings’s speech eulogized this cruel man, and his past work in the “governmen” of Spain for 40 years.
Nowadays, this speech is called “Christmas message from the King” and it’s broadcasted in every single TV channel in Spain. Until a couple of years ago, the only channel who decided not to show the message was the Public Basque TV channel, the EITB. The night of Dec. 24 we have better things to do than listening to a King that we do not even want in the first place. But ever since the Basque Government changed from Nationalists to Socialists, the later ones took control of the media and decided to broadcast the speech.
Actually, this year’s speech has been the lowest in audience of the last 15 years. I am glad to see some people are opening their eyes and starting to realize that the words of this king are a mere script, where they try to lecture us on things they should have been taking care of.
If you want to see the speech, almost all of them are on youtube, but I truly recommend you see the bloopers and the fake speeches instead, they are way more entertaining ;)
Navidad – Christmas Day
Christmas day in Spain is a little copy of Christmas eve, but during lunch. First thing in the morning, children from different sides of the family gather under the tree and open their perfectly wrapped gifts, presents and Christmas sweets. They also travel from house to house collecting the gifts Santa or Papa Noel (not a very recent tradition) left at their family members’ houses.
After having a few drinks and “tapeo”, Kids play in the streets and show off their toys to the rest of the kids, and people start to go to the family house to get ready for lunch. Usually we eat oven roasted different meats and grilled fish and seafood, but we also use many leftovers from the previous night.
This luncheon goes on for hours, and after it kids play with their new toys and laugh in the warm living room of the house.
In many cultures there is oftentimes a winter celebration figure or mythical character around whom the festive revelries of midwinter revolve. Olentzero didn’t start being a Santa Claus figure. The story of how this happened shows some creative license.
Some of today’s celebrated traditions were derived from Christian influence, but others are products of older religions. The pre-Christian era celebrated the end/beginning of a year, while for Christians their year end/beginning was Easter. So the older tradition was assimilated and Christians moved the celebration of the birth of Christ to this season. There are various ways of saying Christmas in Euskara, but the most widespread term is “Eguberria” or “new-day” in Basque. The first written account of Olentzero is in the 16th century. This version of the story tells of a time thousands of years ago when there was a tribe of Jentilak (giants in Basque mythology), Olentzero being one of them.
Olentzero was the only jentil to survive the death of this tribe after the sight of the birth of baby Jesus (of course, here we can see how old and new religion merge when the church wanted to shift pagan rites to be associated with Christian traditions.). He is the one to bring presents to kids on the Christmas morning. Kids love him and make huge figures of him that are afterwards exhibited in the streets and the roads of the country.
Santos Inocentes – April’s Fool
In Spain, this day is celebrated on Dec.28 for religious reasons ( Day of the Holy Innocents). This day is named in honor of the young children who were slaughtered by order of King Herod. These young victims were called Santos Inocentes because they were too young and innocent to have committed any sins. Today the religious aspect has been almost forgotten and the pranks that became popular during the Middle Ages have been combined with winter festivities of pagan origin.
This is one of the popular newspaper dummies that kids attach to the “innocent” men and women’s backs.
There is a program on National TV where different celebrities are subject to pranks, and where others collect money for a good cause. All money collected in this Show Marathons go to Down syndrome Kids Associations, Cancer Associations, and similar causes.
The most popular thing to do this day, is to create fake news on the TV and on the newspapers, such as, George Lucas looking for locations in our city, Bilbao….so don’t believe everything you hear during this day!
Nochevieja – New Year’s Eve
Dec. 31 is a big night worldwide, but there are some things that make it special in Spain. Some people may even say goodbye to the year with the San Silvestre Race. This is an annual 10 km road race celebrated on December 31 in Madrid since 1964, in the borough of Vallecas, Spain. It is has two editions: a fun run foramateur athletes and an elite race for professional athletes.
Now, How do you say goodbye to the year you’re about to leave?
Here, we cheer with champagne with a golden ring inside the glass, to wish prosperity for the new year. We must wear red underwear to call passion and love into our lives in the new months to come.
But, the most important moment of the night is when we eat 12 grapes, one at each stroke of the clock, at the last 12 seconds of the year (one per month). Some say this tradition started with an over production on grapes one winter. Farmers decided they needed to sell them somehow, so they made out the grape eating=good luck combo.
On TV, we all wait with our little plates of grapes before washed and chosen (I want the one without the seeds! I like the small grapes myself!…et cetera.) In every channel, Plaza del Sol in Madrid is the place to be. Everyone goes out and eats the grapes after a big dinner with the family, and then…night is young!
People get out of the windows with firecrackers and fireworks, confetti and wish a Happy New Year to everyone they see.
Then, we have 3 options:
- Party at home with the family
- Party with friends at bars / in the streets
- Go to a Cotillón or private party with a very expensive entrance ticket, where you usually have dinner, alcoholic drinks, all night party, and early morning Churros con chocolate! yumm!
Año nuevo – New Year
New Year day can be a little eery if you are a young person. Let me explain myself…
EVERYTHING is closed. Streets are empty of cars and people. We still close Sundays and every single national holiday, so going back home after all night partying may feel like you’re in “I am Legend” movie…part II.
It’s cold (prob. rainy), and you aren’t sure if you’re still drunk or already hangover.
You are very hungry and sleepy.
Best thing to do? Go back home, kiddo, eat an amazing New Year Day Lunch, have some pre or post lunch drinks and…have a good ol’ siesta :)
Sorteo del Niño
We are in love with bets, games and lottery. El niño is one of the most popular lottery happenings in Spain. The amount of the winning prize is smaller than El Gordo, but 2 million € is not something to joke about!
Jan. 6 in the morning, while little kids are busy opening their presents, adults are staring at the TV wishing for a little money, even if it is just a “pellizco” (a pinch of the big prize).
Reyes – 3 Wise Men / Magi
There are 3 Wise Men, and 3 main moments in this day.
- First, the night of Jan. 5 there is a big celebration in every city to showcase the arrival of our Majesties…A Big parade with horses, camels takes place. Their pages are helping them out with their presents, and throwing away candy.
(Note to self: Never fight against an elderly woman to catch some candy…they always win and use umbrellas as a weapon)
We all know the story: Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar… bring presents for baby Jesus. As little kids, each of us had our favorite King, mine was Balthasar ( I loved racial diversity, even back then) and I truly believed I saw him bring me presents one night…There were no people with dark skin when I was little, so at the parade they used to paint an actor’s face black or brown, and I HATED THAT SO MUCH.
That night, parents leave food for the 3 Wise Men to enjoy. They are having an exhausting trip house to house, so we panper them with sweet wine and polvorones….make sure you eat them during the night, so the kids believe they actually dropped by!
- Second, presents galore. Same thing happens in Christmas day happens on Jan. 6 in the morning. Streets are full with kids playing with their new toys and screaming, while some of us are trying to get alive from the night before.
- Third and last, but not least, ROSCON DE REYES. This thing is the true food of Gods. similar to Mexican “Rosca de Reyes”, but filled with sweet cream, I used to wait all year to eat this amazing pie, as it is only baked this time of the year. We eat it the morning of Jan. 6. This huge bun filled with cream or chocolate hides ceramic figures or presents. Tradition says that if you happen to find one in your piece of pie, you’ll have to pay for the bun the next year.
Rebajas! – Sales!
After spending your life savings on Christmas presents, everything suddenly goes half off! Like American “Black Friday”, we have Sales time right after 3 Wise Men day. What can I say, this is my favorite time of the Winter Holidays ;)
As you can see, winter days are busy and need to be scheduled to take part in every single celebration.
I am sure I might be missing many other traditions or special days to be celebrated but….there’s so many of them! That’s why I have stayed true to the traditions still alive in Northern Spain, the area I know the most.
So…What is your favorite Winter Holiday?