8 things that might surprise you about the holidays in Madrid

November 15, 2016

Christmas is in the air! Are you ready?

It’s time to get into the spirit, but if you’re new to Madrid, you might be a bit lost trying to navigate all the typical Spanish Christmas traditions.

But have no fear!

Today we’re going to talk about eight important holiday traditions to help you celebrate Christmas like a real madrileño.

Some of them might surprise newcomers or first-time visitors… but don’t worry, it’ll be fun for the whole family!

And now, with less blackface. (See #6)

Here goes number one…

1. They celebrate Black Friday now, and it’s four days long… or more!

Black Friday’s expansion in the US hasn’t gone unnoticed by savvy Spanish marketers. But in a country that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s a bit of a mystery why Black Friday is catching on.

The other mystery? Why it’s a four or five-day event in many stores!

I assume almost everybody understands enough English at this point to realize that “Friday” is only one day.

But Black Friday sales in Madrid can just as easily be all weekend, from Thursday to Sunday or even longer.

In any case, business is business, and they’ve been celebrating Black Friday in Madrid for at least the last three years.

(This year, here in Barcelona, even my local pharmacy was celebrating Black Friday.)

2. The crazy crowds in the city center

In the evenings and on weekends, the center is packed, all through the holiday season.

Some days you’ll have to elbow your way through crowds, and you should definitely hang on tight to your wallet and other valuables at all times.

Especially crazy is the area around Cortylandia, between Sol and Ópera.

Prepare for thousands of kids and parents waiting for the animatronics on the back side of the Corte Inglés to light up and start singing.

It can be quite an experience, and definitely not for the agoraphobic!

holidays in Madrid puerta del sol
Puerta del Sol at Christmas. Photo by Mr Chorizo.

The craziest crowd of all is in Puerta del Sol on New Year’s Eve, but you might not know that they do a test of the bells at midnight on December 30th as well.

A lot of people go to the simulacro for a similar party to the one the next night, but with a (somewhat) smaller crowd.

I went once… and it was still insane.

But by all means go, have fun, and leave a comment below about the experience.

3. The national obsession with turrón and shellfish

Back in the day, there used to be two kinds of praline: hard and soft.

Now, there are literally dozens, and the number of varieties seems to be getting bigger each year.

The origin, like marzipan, is apparently Moorish.

You can get them in any supermarket, or for a boutique version, try Casa Mira at Carrera de San Jerónimo, 30 — it’s been there since 1842.

You can also check out polvorones and mantecados, two lard-based pastries from Andalucía. (Not suitable for vegans, obvs.)

The other thing Spaniards go wild about at this time of year is shellfish, prawns especially.

If you go to your local pescadería from now to mid-January, be prepared to wait behind a long line of abuelas buying prawns in various colors and sizes.

Why prawns, specifically? No idea… but you might want to brush up on your seafood vocabulary before the holidays start. Good thing I’ve got a whole article about fish and shellfish in Spanish.

Moving on…

4. Christmas Lottery madness

If you’ve been to Sol at any time since November, you’ve also seen the long lines stretching out from Doña Manolita and El Doblón de Oro, two of the most important lottery offices.

People come from all over to buy tickets from these “lucky” establishments.

The line outside Doña Manolita in Puerta del Sol, Madrid.

I’ve explained some of the bad math in another article, but of course, it’s a tradition, and the social pressure is high.

Ask your Spanish friends how many tickets they and the people in their family have bought this year — it can be quite an interesting conversation.

Also, prepare for most of the city to shut down on the morning of Sunday the 22nd, as everybody listens to the kids sing out the winning numbers on TV and the radio.

5. Twelve grapes on New Year’s Eve

At New Year’s in the US, the story usually begins and ends with drinking champagne and positioning yourself next to someone you’d like to kiss as the clock strikes twelve.

Well, there’s not a lot kissing here. Everyone’s too busy stuffing their mouth with grapes!

These days, you can even get your dozen green grapes (one for each ring of the bell) peeled and pre-bagged for you in supermarkets.

Apparently, with 12 grapes in your mouth at once, the main issue is to keep from gagging — kind of like making out with the wrong person at an NYE party back home, actually.

The tradition of las doce uvas dates back many decades, to at least the beginning of the 20th century.

One theory about its origin is that farmers in Alicante had a particularly large and late grape harvest one year, and invented the “tradition” in order to get rid of the overstock.

6. La Cabalgata de los Reyes

On the afternoon and evening of January 5th, most cities and towns hold a cabalgata, a sort of parade with floats, camels, and of course, the Three Kings. Parents take their kids to see the spectacle, and the Kings throw candy to the crowd.

Here in Madrid, the route goes from Nuevos Ministerios to the city hall at Cibeles, starting around 6:30 PM.

And there’s some good news in recent years: the city council is eliminating blackface from the celebration. In previous years, Balthazar (the Babylonian king) has always been played by a local politician with his face painted black.

In recent years, as a gesture to the new, multicultural Madrid, they’ve decided to hire a real black person for the job… finally!

If you’re a big spender, you can even watch from a suite at Hotel Miguel Ángel on La Castellana – starting from only 187€, last time I checked.

Here’s another thing you might enjoy…

7. Los Reyes are bigger than Santa

There’s actually a bitter debate raging in many Spanish families: the Three Kings, or Santa Claus? Santa Claus, or the Three Kings?

Kids, of course, are happy to celebrate both. More holidays? More presents! And I’m sure the shops don’t mind the extra business either.

The traditional thing is to celebrate on the Kings on January 5th and 6th. It’s based on the story of the Biblical Magi, who brought gifts to baby Jesus. Now, the Kings bring gifts to kids at home. Some families leave wine and sweets out for the Three Kings (and water for their camels) on Noche de Reyes. And since most houses in the city don’t have a fireplace, the Kings ride in through the window. Because they’re magical!

But many parents feel that something traditional is being lost when they also celebrate a “Santa Claus Christmas” on December 25th.

Some talk about the creeping influence of American culture. In any case, like other foreign traditions, it seems to be catching on one way or another.

And finally…

8. The holidays never seem to end!

The crowds in the center and the shopping centers don’t even end at Christmas or New Year’s.

In fact, two weeks after Christmas Day, when everybody back home has already forgotten about the whole thing, Spain is still celebrating, with Roscón, cava, and more prawns…

And the shopping madness lasts until at least January 7th, the first day of full-on rebajas. Because crisis or no crisis, everyone loves a discount.

Frugally yours,

Mr Chorizo.

P.S. What’s your favorite Spanish holiday tradition? Tell us in the comments!

P.P.S. For more fun, check out my article on cultural differences between Spain and the US. That’s a bit more in-depth. You might like it.

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Hello! Thank you for the interesting article. I live in Huesca, but will be traveling to Madrid to meet family on January 1 and 2. I know that a lot of places close for the holiday, but do you recommend any “must see” festivities / places that we can visit those days to get a taste of Madrid?

    1. Probably around Sol and Plaza Mayor you’ll be able to see some cool stuff. I bet the Christmas Market in Plaza Mayor will be open, and a lot of businesses will be too, at last on 2 January. Thanks for commenting!

      1. And there’s nothing quite like having (“taking” – !) a “café con leche” there, Maddy! Or so Anna Botella told us all.

    1. Hi Alberto. It’s kind of a complicated story. But basically, because I like living here, I have a lot of friends here, and it’s easy to find work teaching English. After 12 years it’s difficult to imagine going somewhere else. Thanks for commenting!

  2. HI Daniel…
    The Kings as you said really are “The 3 Wisemen”… be carefull. If you write “Los Reyes Magos”, it is perfect. But they are not The Kings if you traslate to english.

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