Those who have traveled to Spain know that to its spirited residents, any excuse for a party is most welcome. It won’t be surprising, then, to learn that the Christmas holiday season is especially lively here, whether you’re visiting a small Andalusian village or cosmopolitan Barcelona. Festivities begin with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, and continue straight until Three Kings’ Day on January 6th … but the main culinary event takes place on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve, also called Nochebuena (literally translated as “Good Night”), is the most important family feast day of the year. So, make it a point to visit a good Spanish friend on Christmas Eve – this is one celebration that doesn’t translate from the family table into restaurants or bars, most of which will be closed for the holiday. This is the day when even the poorest families will splurge on luxurious foods, and the meal usually extends late into the evening.
It is not an uncommon sight in Spanish kitchens at Christmas time to see a black-footed leg of pig resting on the counter – which implies a delicious plate of jamon iberico in the near future to kick off the Nochebuena feast. Gifting one of these legs is a most welcome gesture between friends or business associates during the holiday season. Around 10 PM the eating begins, and it will go on for hours!
Another Nochebuena tradition has historically been angulas, or baby eels, a tapa dish usually served on grilled bread. Today, the ultra-pricey baby eels are more commonly replaced with gulas, a lookalike “faux-eel” product made from fish and delicious sautéed with garlic and olive oil.
In Catalonia, a traditional Christmas Eve dish is sopa de galets, a rich, homemade soup. This filling dish is made from a rich, meaty stock and mincemeat-stuffed pasta called galets that are usually sold in special Christmasy packaging at the shops in December.
In decades past, Spanish families would make a special Christmas turkey with truffles for the main course, but that tradition has given way to the more attainable cordero asado (roasted lamb) or suckling pig.
Throughout Spain at Christmastime, the ubiquitous dessert is turron, a sweet almond candy that has been served for centuries at the holidays. Other desserts might be polvorones, an almond shortbread cookie, or marzipan.
Perhaps the most novel Spanish tradition on Christmas Eve is just where those turron and polvorones might be found – in the posterior of a small, smiley-faced log called the Caga Tio. This children’s item is usually introduced to the family on December 8th, during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The little ones look after him in the coming weeks – covering him with a blanket to keep warm, feeding him candy – so that he will dispense tasty treats on Christmas Eve. That’s right … on the holiday itself, children sing a special song warning the Caga Tio that if he does not “poo” hazelnuts and turron, they will hit him with sticks. Then, they reach inside the blanket to unearth their sweets and small toys, somewhat similar to the American custom of hiding treats in stockings.
This tradition is more common to Catalonia, also home to the curious habit of adding another scatological reference to their holiday: a figure in nativity scenes called the Caganer. This is a small carving of a traditionally dressed Catalonian man who squats amongst the goats and wise men in the manger of baby Jesus, fertilizing the earth for luck. The Caganer has absolutely nothing to do with food, but obviously is worth mentioning all the same.
And, of course, cava (a Spanish sparkling wine) is enjoyed throughout the evening. Eating and drinking takes hours, and most families are still finishing up their meals when the chapel bells toll at midnight, calling the revelers to church for a special Mass … though the partying usually resumes after the service has concluded! This is Spain, after all.