The Christmas season is very special in Spain. The day of the lottery, the bright lights that decorate the streets, the parade of the Three Kings, the delicious polvorones or the dinners with our loved ones. Over the centuries, a large number of traditions and customs have been created around Christmas, many of them with a religious origin. However, these holidays are constantly evolving and modernising, which has meant that some of these customs have been lost. We review some of the lost Christmas traditions in Spain to learn about the origins of this very special time.
The Fiesta de aguinaldos has been present throughout Spain since the Middle Ages. It was one of the most deeply rooted traditions of the Christmas celebration. Originally, the aguinaldo consisted of a collection of food, such as nuts or chestnuts to be auctioned, which began on the 16th of December. The money obtained was given to the church for services held at Christmas, such as Christmas ceremonies.
It was also possible to donate money. This aguinaldo was collected house by house. The custom was to ask for a tip in some homes in exchange for some action carried out at Christmas. In particular, it was done by the children; who went to the homes of their neighbours or relatives to sing Christmas carols and, in return, received some coins or sweets.
Over the years it evolved and this was like the “pocket money” given to the little ones as a Christmas present. It is a tradition that has been lost in all areas of Spain; it is not common to find homes that still celebrate it. Nowadays, gifts are usually given on Santa Claus Day or the Three Kings.
Moreover, the aguinaldo was also linked to a company Christmas tradition. It was like a Christmas present from businesses to their workers; in the form of both a tip and extra pay. It was a voluntary action, although in many places in Spain it was compulsory by agreement; a form of gift for the effort made throughout the year.
In fact, in 1944 a government order came out requiring companies to pay a minimum of one week’s salary in cash for the Christmas bonus. This tradition has not existed since the Workers’ Statute established that the annual salary would be divided into 14 monthly payments; with two extraordinary payments at Christmas and in the summer. Although the aguinaldo can still be paid to employees, no business continues this tradition.
If there is one thing that has characterized Christmas in recent years, it is the big Christmas lunches and dinners full of appetizers and typical Christmas dishes. We eat, and a lot. On Christmas Eve, the menu is full of food: seafood, pâté, meat and all kinds of starters. However, years ago the food and the celebration were very different from how we know them today.
The menu was simpler and different according to the social class of each family. Most Spanish citizens ate vegetables, eggs or fish. Moreover, one had to eat little and early to attend the Midnight Mass on an empty stomach. Religious law had a strong influence on Christmas cuisine. After Midnight Mass it was usual to eat homemade Christmas sweets. The grandmothers of each home were in charge of gathering the women of the family days before to prepare the Christmas desserts for that night.
On the 25th the food was different, no vegetables or fish: for centuries the star dish of the day after the Christmas Eve fast was meat. Stuffed turkey or capon for the upper classes, while for the lower or middle classes it was time for slaughter, whether chickens, roosters, ducks, chickens or lambs.
Today’s Christmas decoration has little, if anything, to do with that of years ago. Today, the Christmas tree is present in almost every home and a large Nativity scene; but what does this have in common with the customs of a few years ago? Houses were decorated with the crib, which was the only Christmas symbol that represented the birth of Jesus. No Christmas tree, no figures of Father Christmas or the Three Kings. The crib is the origin of the Nativity that is placed in many homes, establishments and town halls today.
It began to be used in the 7th century, when Pope Theodore I deposited the remains of the original crib in Rome; thus beginning the tradition of decorating homes at Christmas with the nativity scene as a symbol of life and natural rebirth.
For years, the Midnight Mass was one of the essential elements of Christmas in Catholic traditions. Next to the nativity scene it was something that no Spanish home could do without, and that was to attend this mass. This is celebrated on Christmas Eve, between the 24th and 25th of December. It is usually celebrated in the early morning, after the Christmas Eve dinner. This tradition owes its origin to Pope Sixtus III, when in the 5th century A.D., he introduced in Rome the custom of celebrating the birth of Jesus with a prayer at midnight.
The name of this mass is somewhat curious. For the ancient Romans, the beginning of the day was “when the rooster crowed”, and this expression was used by the Pope to announce the Midnight Mass every year. In the Vatican, it is still celebrated every year and even in the local churches and parishes this tradition is maintained; but it is increasingly disused among the inhabitants.
Years ago, this Christmas tradition was a must for all Catholics in the country and most households attended the early morning mass. Now in Spain the tradition has been forgotten and is only maintained by the elderly or those with a great Catholic tradition.