Christmas is an admired and festive celebration which Christians enjoy all over the world and it is even celebrated in many countries where Christianity is not the religion of the majority of people. Christmas trees are a popular decoration as are tiny sparkling lights in the streets and houses. However, this festivity is celebrated differently depending on the country or the region you visit.
If you are walking the Camino, you will find out how Spanish, Portuguese and Galician (in the last part of the Camino) celebrate their Christmas.
Firstly, I would highlight that although Santa Claus is playing a major role at Spanish homes, the most traditional present-givers are still the Three Wise Men, which date is on January 6th and on January 5th. The Three Wise Men are called kings in Spanish and they bring presents for children. Every city and town holds a Three Wise Men parade on 5th January evening, they hand out candies and children can talk to them after the route across the town. In Galicia you are likely to know a less popular character who is called the Apalpador. The Apalpador visits Galician children on December 31st while the children are asleep to feel their bellies and know if they are hungry or not, and gives them a handful of chestnuts. This is a really old autochthonous tradition which has been retrieved recently and the testimonies of many elderlies who remembered the visits of this character were the basis for the rebirth of the myth. His description (a large man, not very well groomed, good-natured and living in the wilderness) relates him to other Christmas figures from nearby places. As, for example, with the Basque Olentzero, with whom he shares clothing and profession, since both live isolated and work on making charcoal. They both symbolize the end of the year, the break with the old times that are ending and the birth of a new era.
Another important tradition that takes place around Christmas time is the National lottery, known as “ El Gordo” (the grand prize). It has been celebrated on December 22nd since 1812. It´s so popular that media adverts become a must every year. You may not understand what they are saying but it´s worth watching them because they are really warm-hearted and get the Christmas spirit (no forgetting that a product is trying to be sold, of course).
Beléns are another singular Spanish tradition. Beléns are nativity scenes that many families set up in their homes but they can also be seen in shop windows or town squares. Some can be really impressive with all kind of details: animals, figurines, rivers, marketplaces… Furthermore, in some towns Belenes Vivientes are performed. They are a representation of the nativity scene with amateur actors.
La Misa Del Gallo is a Midnight Mass which some Spanish people decide to attend on Christmas Eve to celebrate their faith.
Be careful on December 28th, the Día de los Santos Inocentes, it is the Spanish version of April´s Fool´s Day, playing pranks is a must.
Regarding food, there is a great deal of variety. Every table in every house must have real sweet treats such as turrón, polvorones and mantecados. If you have never tried or heard of them, you should do it. They are all around wherever you go or stay. Don´t forget chocolate con churros after New Year´s Eve party. Bars and cafés will be crowded with people ordering chocolate con churros very early in the morning before going to bed. And on January 6th we will enjoy Roncón de Reyes, a sweet bread ring, sometimes stuffed with whipped cream. A small figurine is usually hidden inside the bread ring and the one who finds it has the honour of buying next year´s roscón.
So, is it worth walking the Camino at Christmas and find out all these different customs and traditions? Of course, it is.
Merry Chrismas and buen Camino, amigos!