Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve watched double-decker buses line up along Plaza de Colón. The city has been fully decked in lights since the first of the month and come to find out, these navibuses (as in Navidad or Christmas buses) take folks around Madrid to see the city’s best and brightest.
One great thing about traveling around the holidays is discovering new traditions. For instance, I loved lighting candles on Día de las Velitas and the special nighttime ciclovía each December in Bogotá. New traditions are even more important for those living abroad because incorporating something new into your holiday season can help take the sting out of being away from loved ones.
If you’re traveling to or living in Madrid count yourself lucky—here, the holiday season is more than just Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Keep reading for a rundown of special days in Spain’s capital city.
December 8th – The feast of the Immaculate Conception
This day celebrates the immaculate conception of Jesus’ mother, Mary, as Catholics follow the tradition that Mary too was born without sin. In Madrid, this holiday couples with Constitution Day on December 6th to form a long weekend or puente. There’s nothing like a five day weekend to usher in the holiday season!
December 22nd – The Christmas Lottery
Spain’s Christmas lottery—also called El Gordo—is one of the biggest in the world. As December 22nd approaches, you’ll see makeshift tables with people selling tickets and lines stretching down the block so people can buy a €200 ticket. While that seems like a lot of money to spend on a slim chance, El Gordo is different in that there are more than 15,000 cash prizes given out each year. Many Spaniards either split the cost or buy 1/10 of a ticket which the winners share. Winners are sung (yep, sung!) by students of the San Ildefonso School. Tradition says that the school’s students were first chosen in 1771 to sing the numbers because as orphans they were seen as less likely to cheat.
December 24th & 25th – Christmas Eve & Day
Out of the two, the 24th or Nochebuena is the star. Christmas Eve is the day most families gather together for a big meal and to attend a midnight mass. And if you have Spanish friends, this is the day you’ll receive those Merry Christmas text messages. Papá Noel has only become popular in recent decades and brings little ones a gift or two on Christmas eve, but nothing like Three Kings’ Day (see below). Christmas day is a laid-back affair and many businesses are open—remember, people are still shopping for the main holiday! You’ll see lots of families out walking and enjoying the plazas, lights, and brisk weather.
December 28th – Día de los Santos Inocentes
Día de los Santos Inocentes or Day of the Holy Innocents remembers the order given by King Herod to slaughter the young boys around the time of Jesus’ birth. Today, it’s lost its religious significance to become the Spanish equivalent of April Fool’s Day. Strange, but true. Take a spin through the Christmas market in Plaza Mayor you’ll see wigs, silly outfits, and little pranks to help you get in on the fun.
December 31st – New Year’s Eve
Like many other countries, Christmas is for family and New Year’s Eve is for friends. Clubs and restaurants all have special events and there will be no shortage of revelers in the streets, especially in places like Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor. One thing everyone must do is chomp down twelve grapes at the stroke of midnight to ensure twelve months of good luck in the year ahead. Just be sure not to choke on your lucky grapes!
January 6th – Día de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings’ Day)
This is the main holiday of the season and is a much bigger deal than Christmas. Also known as the Epiphany, the 6th is when Spanish children receive their presents, brought by the Three Kings. Each year on the evening of January 5th, Madrid has a cabalgata or parade through the city. The floats are impressive and if you don’t mind elbowing a kid, you may even score a piece of candy. You can read a bit more about Día de los Reyes Magos here.
Have you picked up any new holiday traditions while traveling or during your life abroad? I’d love to hear how you celebrate in the comments below!