It is twelve o’clock at night on the last day of the year and the quarters begin to ring. Spaniards, together with their loved ones, gather in front of a television set and eat the 12 grapes to the rhythm of the bells. After the last one, the matasuegras sound and families embrace. But where does this curious tradition come from, is it something relatively recent or is it a Christmas habit with a long history? What are the alternatives for those who don’t like grapes?
Because you have to go back about a century to begin to find clues about the origin of the 12 grapes of the bells. These, along with the most traditional Christmas sweets in Spain, mark a time of family reunions and good wishes.
The first references to this Christmas tradition date back to 1895, where some newspapers of the time, such as El Imparcial, indicate that it is a custom imported from France. And it was something exclusive to private bourgeois parties, where champagne was also drunk. Both were products that at that time the wealthier classes could not afford.
But it did not take long to jump to the humblest, the people gathered in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid to mock the rich. Although this tradition began as a social criticism, this mocking tone eventually disappeared over the years to normalize the tradition.
In addition to this theory, there are also others more focused on marketing. An example of this occurred in 1909, when there was a surplus of white grape production in Alicante. This caused the producers to devise a campaign to give that magic touch to the grapes, also known as the lucky grapes.
Also noteworthy was the emergence of a late harvest grape in Almería. Growers managed to cultivate a variety that ripened in December, making it the perfect time to enjoy them. These grapes, large and green, were curiously more successful in central European countries.
That is why this tradition can be observed not only in Spain and other European countries, but has spread all over the world. Thanks to new technologies and means of transportation, places as remote as Latin America or Australia can also enjoy this magical custom.
The Puerta del Sol in Madrid is the most iconic place on Spanish New Year’s Eve. During those hours, not only thousands of people have crowded there during the last century, but also the different media to broadcast the bells.
The producers from Alicante of the beginning of the century came to the square to sell all their surplus, encouraging even more that this tradition was implanted among the entire population of Madrid while the bells offered by the clock of the Puerta del Sol sounded.
But despite being the most emblematic place, this tradition spread like wildfire to other parts of Spain. Now the 12 grapes of fortune can be enjoyed at the New Year’s Eve bells in Barcelona, Santiago de Compostela or the Canary Islands.
Only on two occasions was the tradition of lucky grapes at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid not celebrated. Despite this, the following years it continued to be held, avoiding becoming another of the lost traditions of Christmas in Spain.
The first time took place in the middle of the Civil War. Gatherings of large groups of people were forbidden to prevent the constant bombings from causing casualties. In addition, in 1938 the main dial of the clock was broken when it was hit by an explosive in an attack.
Eighty years later, in 2020, and due to the pandemic caused by covid-19, social gatherings were also avoided. That is why the celebration was completely suspended, in order to avoid a greater number of contagions among the neighbors and tourists of Madrid. The same thing happened in other cities that also celebrated this type of events.
But the grapes are not to everyone’s liking, despite the traditions. There are many people who, in order not to miss this fantastic occasion to be with friends and loved ones, prefer alternatives that can be as similar as curious.
A classic, especially when children want to copy the traditions of adults, are jelly beans. These sweets come in all shapes and colors, and are a well-deserved reward for those little ones who have behaved well throughout the year.
Without straying too far from the shape and size of grapes, olives are a good alternative. It is a typical Spanish product, as is the case of Mallorcan olives. It is recommended to remove the stone or buy them stuffed.
Lentils are a Spanish dish recognized worldwide, but also has its place in this festive season. Specifically in Italy and ancient Rome, where they were eaten at the beginning of the year in the belief that they would bring luck. Twelve spoonfuls may be too much, but eating twelve lentils is as simple as it is symbolic.
From peanuts, raisins, almonds, hazelnuts and a variety of nuts, they all make a great alternative. Not that they are too easy to chew and ingest, like grapes, but on a nutritional level they will provide the energy needed to get you through the New Year’s party.
Another food that fits very well are oranges and tangerines. Especially the segments of the latter are a great substitute for grapes, both for their size and their sweet taste. They can be a fantastic challenge for those who want to have a few laughs during the bells.