The Most Curious and Unknown Spanish Christmas Traditions

The Christmas season is very special in Spain. Not only because of the massive parades of the wise men, the most outstanding lottery of this time of year in Europe or the competitions to have the greatest lights. Also because of the rich folklore that has been created around these celebrations for centuries. These are curious Spanish Christmas traditions that reflect the particularities of each region of the country. This small review includes some of the more unusual and, in some cases, slightly disturbing ones.

The Galician Apalpador

Re-emerging in the mid-2000s, the Apalpador has become one of the Christmas traditions in Galicia. It probably emerged in the mountainous areas of the east of the community, in the Lugo Ancares, and it is a coalman. Ragged, wearing a beret, smoking a pipe and sometimes with a donkey called Lor, he comes down from the mountains on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve to leave the children present after touching their bellies.

El Apalpador, tradición navideña curiosa en España

The Apalpador. | Galiza Contrainfo (Flickr)

Originally, the gifts were chestnuts and coal. The food was given to children who could not have something to eat, which was not unusual in rural areas, especially in Lugo and Ourense. Meanwhile, the fuel was for those who had a full tummy but nothing to warm up with. With time, as it could not be otherwise, the Apalpador became an alternative to the American Father Christmas. In this way, instead of fruits and minerals, all kinds of gifts were given.

There are several versions of the origin of this peculiar Spanish Christmas character. For example, some hypotheses suggest that its similarity to the Basque-Navarre Olentzero is not a coincidence. Thus, it would be an adaptation of a regionalist or nationalist nature. Other theories suggest that it emerged as an adaptation of a pre-Roman myth. The element of touching children’s tummies is believed to be based on a Lusitanian divinatory custom. Backing up this version of the Apalpador is the fact that in Écija, Seville, there is a very similar character, the Tientapanzas. It is thought that it was the Galician repopulators who brought the tradition to the south.

From the Basque-Navarre mountains: Olentzero

Originally from the area of Lesaka in Navarre, the Olentzero is one of the most unique and ancient Christmas traditions and characters in the country. He is also known as Olentzaro, Orantzaro or Onontzaro. In his case, his existence is well traced thanks to different documents, such as the Navarrese Fueros. Although during the Franco regime it struggled to subsist due to the prohibitions of the dictatorship, it revived strongly after that time. Today it does not fail to deliver gifts every 25th December from the Basque Country and Navarre.

Olentzero, una especie de papa noel vasco

Olentzero. | Shutterstock

It is believed that the character appeared with the pre-Roman festivities associated with the winter solstice. Then came the Roman Saturnalia. Christianity adapted both these and the pre-Roman customs, with which the Olentzero himself became attached to the birth of Jesus Christ. Over time, his unkempt, dirty, charcoal-bound appearance was consolidated. His mountain character was also vital, with legends including Basque fairies and goblins. Thus, his work consisted of going down from his house, where he lived alone, to provide fuel for the towns in the isolated Basque/Navarrese mountains. As with the Apalpador, he now gives out gifts to children from Guipúzcoa to Pamplona.

Closely associated with the culture of Navarre, the Olentzero is one of the most curious Christmas traditions in Spain. However, its current friendly nature is the result of a certain whitewashing. For example, although it used to be presented to you smoking a pipe, this detail is now often omitted. In some areas he did not give out presents, but came down the chimney with a sickle and mowed the throats of those who were not asleep. A horrific turn of events in the 17th century that has now completely disappeared.

Good fairies: the Cantabrian Anjanas

Following the rare Spanish Christmas traditions that accompany the festivities in the different regions of the country, it is time to travel to the villages of Cantabria. There, the Anjanas abound, ancestral fairy-like creatures of European folklore. Thus, they are very beautiful and wear floral wreaths and vaporous silk garments. This links them to the Lamias, beings of Greek origin that were characterized by being terrible seducers and kidnappers. This is a personalisation of the demeaning image of the female figure that prevailed at the time. However, their Cantabrian equivalents are much more positive. It is also very similar to the Nymphs, being associated with fountains and water.

Lamia figura mitológica relacionada con la Anjana

Lamia (John William Waterhouse), mythological figure related to the Anjana. | Wikimedia

Defenders of all that is noble and solidary, the Anjanas reward good behaviour and punish the selfish and cruel. Their arch-enemies are the Ojáncanos and Ojáncanas, terrible and bloodthirsty beings who stole, killed and did all kinds of evil. In Spain there are very similar characters such as the Xanas from Asturias or the Mouras from Galicia.

As far as Christmas traditions are concerned, it is said that every four years they left clothes and tools to the poor. As a result of the rescue of their folklore, which took place in the first third of the 20th century, they ended up replacing the Three Kings. Therefore, she brings gifts, not only to the most disadvantaged, in the early morning of 6 January.

Beatings, gifts and scatology: Tió de Nadal and La Tronca

The most bizarre of all Spanish Christmas traditions are found in Aragón and Catalonia. In these regions they are called respectively La Tronca and Tió de Nadal. It is a derivation of the custom of burning a trunk for the winter solstice. It was a ritual associated with the ancestors and the rebirth in which the ashes of the wood were kept or scattered.

In the western areas of Alto Aragón, such as the area around Jaca, it is still carried out in this way. Several chants bless the Tronca, with children as the protagonists on many occasions. It is finally burnt on the 25th December, the culminating point of Advent. However, in the eastern areas of Huesca and Catalonia everything becomes much more gruesome.

Toí de Nadal, similar a la tronca de Navidad pero con barretina

Tió de Nadal. | Shutterstock

Although there are differences, the essence of the tradition is the same. The wood must have holes and is “looked after” from the beginning of December. Thus, it is covered with a blanket and fed so that it is not hungry. On Christmas Eve, the adults look for an excuse for the children to leave the room and fill their holes with sweets, tangerines and small gifts, which are hidden under the blanket. After that, the children are asked to come back and the good things begin.

The process is known as “hacer cagar a la Tronca” or “Caga Tió”. It consists of continuously beating the unfortunate wood so that it poops the presents. These presents fall with the beating that is given. At the same time, festive songs are sung. Finally, after weeks of taking care of it and protecting it from the cold with a blanket, the wood ends up in the fireplace. To give it a more gruesome touch, nowadays it usually has a smiling face drawn on it and in Catalonia a barretina is put on it. A very scatological custom in line with the famous caganer; both being among the weirdest Christmas traditions.

Pastoral dances in the Madrid mountains: the Pastorela

Braojos de la Sierra is a small village in the mountains north of Madrid. It has barely 205 inhabitants and yet it has some curious Christmas traditions. It is the Pastorela. During the Misa del Gallo, around midnight on Christmas Eve, the shepherds would come down to the town in Madrid to pay homage to the Baby Jesus. Re-editing the Christian tradition, they offered a lamb to the figure of Jesus Christ. However, they added a new factor, a dance to the sound of the liturgical choirs.

This custom dates back at least to the 15th century, although it is believed that it may even be from the 13th century. In total there are nine shepherds who dance, led by the Zarragón. This is the one in charge of giving the animal to the newborn Jesus. The choir sings songs in Vulgar Latin, following the lines marked out centuries ago. They use traditional instruments, such as zambombas or castanets. Meanwhile, the costumes worn by the dancers are the traditional shepherd’s costume, with their backpacks and leather garments.

Rome’s legacy in Mallorca: the Song of the Sybil

To conclude this review, there is one very old liturgical performance, the Song of the Sybil (“Canto de la Sibila”). It consists of a song sung during the Misa del Gallor by a boy or girl, normally dressed in white and carrying a sword. It is also performed by priests or adult women. The organ only intervenes between blocks of verse. It has been played in the Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca, as well as in Balearic churches, without interruption since the medieval Christian conquest until today, only a period of three years without being played in the 16th century. It shares this honour with the Sardinian city of Alghero and is a World Heritage Site.

This Christmas tradition has its roots in the Sibyl of Eritrea, a mythical Roman figure who predicted the end of the world. Christianity did not take long to adapt the character and his predictions, summarised in the poem Judicii Signum. In this way the representation was introduced as early as the Carolingian period, gaining great popularity in southern Europe. Through the Song of the Sibyl, the story of the Last Judgement and the second coming of Christ was brought to the people. At first it was not exclusively associated with Christmas Eve and Christmas.

As time went by, this Christmas tradition became less popular and was finally banned at the Council of Trent during the 16th century. However, although it was lost in the rest of the Kingdom of Aragón, it continued to be performed in Palma de Mallorca, now translated into Mallorcan. Its character as a Gregorian chant evolved over time and was appreciated by the Romantics who came to the island of Mallorca. However, it was only after the Second Vatican Council that women were able to interpret the Song of the Sybil; as they were able to access the baptistery in the liturgy. Today it is being reintroduced in various areas of Valencia and Catalonia.


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