Christmas in Rioja

Here, the holiday season lasts about a month – from December 8 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception) to January 6 (Epiphany).  Imagine starting the party at Thanksgiving and ending it on New Year’s Day and you get the idea.

There are quite a few differences between celebrating in the USA and in Spain.  In the first place, there is no fixed tradition about who gives the gifts and when.  Traditionally, gift giving took place on the morning of January 6, Epiphany, the day the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the infant Jesus.  The holiday itself is called ‘Reyes’ or ‘Kings’.

This is not always the case, however.

When I was recently married with young children, we usually spent the holidays at my parents-in-law’s house in Zaragoza.  My father-in-law was from Barcelona, and his family’s tradition was to give gifts on Christmas Eve, something my family still does today.  Their Nativity scene had the crib with the infant Jesus, Mary, Joseph, assorted sheep and a curious figure squatting behind a palm tree called ‘el Caganer’ or ‘the crapper’.When my kids and their cousins wanted their presents, they had to yell, ‘Tío Cagatarro’  three times.

To maintain this tradition we have a ‘crapper’  next to the manger.

In the Basque part of Rioja, the man who brings the presents is ‘el olentzero’, a man who delivers the coal.  Curiously, in Spain, when kids misbehave, their parents say that instead of presents, they’re going to get a lump of coal.

Santa Claus (Papá Noel) is also on the scene, undoubtedly due to Anglo-Saxon (in other words, commercial) influences.  I always laugh when I hear ‘White Christmas’  and ‘Jingle Bells’ sung  in Spanish. It’s like singing  ‘La Bamba’ at Thanksgiving.

One of the highlights of the season is the Christmas lottery,  held on December 22.  Every radio and TV station carries the drawing, with the numbers and prizes sung aloud by children from an orphans’ school near Madrid.  After the winning numbers are drawn, TV crews rush to the city or village to film the happy winners drinking wine and planning how to tell their bosses they won’t return to work the next day.

The big family dinner is always on Christmas Eve – an event that I always tell my Spanish friends is analogous to Thanksgiving in the USA.

On New Year’s Eve at exactly 12 midnight, everyone celebrates the new year by eating 12 grapes, one for every chime of the bells in the city hall tower in Madrid.

I don’t think children care whether the coal man, the three kings or Santa brings the presents, but I’m sure what the parents think.  Imagine having your children around the house from December 15 to January 7 and having to wait until the night of January 5 to receive their presents!  Most parents I know let them open their gifts on Christmas Eve to keep them busy until they have to go back to school!

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