I was lucky enough to visit the Spanish capital city over the Christmas period last year. Madrid is an incredible city to visit at the best of times, but the festive period is really something special. With over 90% of the city’s population being catholic, Madrid celebrates Christmas in style.
The city’s main street ‘Gran Via’ is littered with Christmas trees lit up with thousands of lights, and the main square, Puerta del Sol, welcomes crowds of tourists and locals alike to marvel at the exquisite architecture and street artists all around them.
All of this seems fairly typical of a big city letting loose at Christmas, and it is, but Madrid has something special about their festive celebration that is uniquely Spanish; their celebrations extend far beyond just the 25th December.
I arrived in the city on the 22nd December, believing that I had a few days before everything really kicked in. I was wrong. I walked into a city that had been celebrating Christmas in some way or another since the 8th December with a public holiday known as ‘Immaculada’, or the feast day of the ‘immaculate conception’.
Upon entering the city I was immediately accosted by merchants offering to sell me numbered tickets for what I would eventually decipher were used for the Christmas Lottery, a huge raffle with participants from all over the country that is drawn twice a year. I opted to decline their offer, choosing to observe the flurry of excitement as the winning numbers were drawn later that night.
Back home I had become accustomed to celebrating Christmas on Christmas Day itself, and none of the false hype drummed up by playing Christmas songs in early November had managed to sway me to do otherwise. However, the people of Madrid were eager to get the party started early simply due to their traditions. It was refreshing to say the least.
By Christmas Eve I was already exhausted, which was particularly bad timing.
In Spain, Christmas Eve, known locally as La Noche Buena or The Good Night, is considered to be a more important day of celebration than Christmas Day, and the friends I was visiting didn’t let me forget it.
Our first stop was the Christmas market at Plaza Mayor. There were so many sights and sounds from the merchants that I almost missed the incredible architecture around me. The Plaza Mayor was built back in 1617 under the reign of King Philip III, and when it’s not filled with market stalls and nativity scenes, as it was during my visit, it functions as a meeting place for the locals. I picked up some last minute stocking fillers and headed away for Christmas Eve dinner.
Christmas Eve Dinner
Christmas Eve dinner is something rather special in Madrid.
Firstly, it occurs very late at night, and I mean very late, some families opt to begin the meal at midnight, so for those of you who enjoy the early bird special at your local restaurant this may be a bit of a culture shock. It was for me.
Our dinner was made of traditional Spanish fare. Fans of seafood will be in heaven as starters are usually made up of small tapas dishes of shellfish and prawn soups or salads. We eat so late in the day I was so hungry I practically inhaled mine, delicious nonetheless. Our main course once again remained very traditional. Roast lamb with ‘patatas fritas’. I was told that the main courses tend to include some form of red meat, a definite change of pace from the light starters.
We finished the meal with a glass of cava, Spanish sparkling wine that is traditional at Christmas time.
The meal was huge, extravagant and very Spanish. Exactly what the doctor ordered. Actually it was exactly the opposite of what a doctor would order anyone to eat, but I figured ‘why not?’, I’m covered anyway.
After the meal was over, my friends and I swapped presents but only opened one each. This has become a tradition in Spain normally reserved for children but we adopted it just this once. Traditionally, in Spain Christmas presents are received on the 6th January, the Feast of the Epiphany, the day when the Three Kings are believed to have arrived in Bethlehem.
One of the most surprising things I encountered on my trip was the cultural divide between the traditional Christmas festivities, and the new Western influx. Madrid imports much of the same TV, films and music as we experience in the UK and the US, so their awareness of western traditions and cultural figures is high and is usually accepted warmly.
However, in Madrid the parents made a special effort to remind their kids that it was the Three Kings who were providing the gifts, not the western figure of Santa Clause.
Santa Claus, or Papa Noel, is normally relegated to only providing a small gift on the 25th December (hence our single unwrapped gift on late Christmas Eve), whereas the ‘main event’ presents are given a fortnight later on the 6th. I couldn’t have coped with waiting that long as a kid.
To those keeping score, the Christmas celebrations in Madrid officially begin on the 8th December and don’t slow down until the 7th January when the kids go back to school and the parents return to work. Almost a month of feast days, parades, three course meals and presents, and that’s not even including the little party called New Years Eve that is caught in the middle of it all.
For those interested in visiting I have one word of advice, go at Christmas. I can’t imagine returning at any other time of year.