The Christmas festivities in Andalucia start on Christmas Eve and carry on through to the 6th January
Belen at Mollina
The Christmas festivities in Andalucia start on Christmas Eve and carry on through to the 6th January. The warm up to Christmas actually starts in November when the first chestnut vendors appear on the streets of cities, towns and villages. They roast the nuts on open fires and braziers and sell the hot nuts in paper cones. To find a roast chestnut stall, just follow your nose up the sweetly scented smoke trail that each brazier emits. Then you have the living Nativity plays that fill the gap to Christmas Eve. Christmas itself does not end until the 7th January. Christmas in Andalucia is a mammoth event and it is best to just go with the flow. There are a number of national holidays over the period that you should be aware of; 6th December – Constitution Day, 8th December – Immaculate Conception, 25th December – Christmas Day, 26th December – St. Stephen’s Day, 1st January – New Years Day, 6th January – Epiphany. If any fall on a Sunday then the Monday is taken instead.
Belen Viviente at Beas
The Belén or Nativity Scene, has a long tradition in Andalucia. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of pieces, saved from year to year, are brought out and assembled into scenes, the manger scenario is a firm favourite. Some recreate the entire village of Bethlehem. These Belén will take pride of place in many homes, often eclipsing the northern European tradition of the Christmas tree.
Belén may also be found on public display, in shop windows, in the workplace, in schools and in churches from early December until the 6th January.
Three Kings procession
A small village on the lower slopes of the Sierra de Mollina some 65 kilometres inland from Malaga and 3,600 from the Holy Land itself is an unlikely spot to choose to re-create Bethlehem but that is exactly what the citizens of Mollina, with the help of the Diaz Caballero Foundation, decided they were going to do. Opened in 2017, the Belén Museum is a collection of Nativity Scenes, reported to be the largest collection in the world, created by famous Spanish manufacturers from all corners of Spain. There are 60 scenes on display around three huge creations. One representing the eight provinces of Andalucia is 25 metres long. It is a magical experience that your children will love. The museum is open all year and obviously most popular during the Christmas period.
As the name suggests, these are living Belénes. Adults and children dress up as Mary, Joseph, Roman soldiers and the villagers of Bethlehem and use the streets and squares of their town to recreate nativity scenes. You will often find the local animals taking part as well, dogs, sheep, goats and donkeys all helping to create a real stable atmosphere.
Dates vary in different towns but generally start in the first week of December, around the Puente de la Inmaculada, and run until the 5th January. There is often an artisan market and the inevitable roast chestnut stall. The most notable and lively are mentioned here.
The towns and villages in Cádiz province have taken the Belénes vivientes to heart and some are now famous events.
The Belénes vivientes in Arcos de la Frontera claims to be the largest in Spain. It normally takes place on the last Saturday before Christmas, from five in the evening until late in the Plaza del Cabildo, in front of the Parador Hotel. You will be treated to flamenco music playing background to the scenes re-enacted by the locals. The scenes cover the Christmas story from the Visitation of the Angel Gabriel up to the Birth of the Baby Jesus and include a Jewish wedding, the manger scene of course, the notification to King Herod complete with Roman soldiers and belly dancers and the arrival of the shepherds.
The Belénes vivientes in Espera is unique. Local folklore has it that a cave beneath the castle was the birthplace of Jesus. It makes a great setting for the manger scene on the last Saturday before Christmas.
One or two Sunday’s before Christmas, up to 600 citizens put on an epic display in the Barrio de Santa Maria in Medina Sidonia and the streets leading into the square. There are over 60 scenes that stretch for over 1000 metres.
This Belénes vivientes is a little more organised than some, visitors follow an itinerary that includes stopping at a local tavern, representing the inn at Bethlehem, and the pre birth scenes played out in the patio of the castle. Market stalls and peripatetic vendors selling ‘authentic’ produce from the period add to the atmosphere. This event takes place on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday before Christmas.
Although not as famous as those in Cadiz, the one in Beas is worth a visit.
The first Belénes vivientes in Beas, a small town in the centre of Huelva province, occurred in 1969. It is the oldest in Andalucia. It may also be the largest, covering over 3000 square metres, and the longest, starting in late November and carrying on every weekend morning and evening until early January. An artisan market springs up around the Belén so it is quite a lively event.
This is another unique Belénes vivientes. The mountain village of Linares de la Sierra, near Aracena, only has just over 300 inhabitants. They consider the Three Kings to be the most important part of the Christmas story. Bonfires are lit in the streets and the villagers open their front doors to allow visitors to see the Belénes vivientes played out within. In normal years over 1000 people visit Linares for this event.
Fontanar is a small hamlet near Pozo Alcon. Unusually, this Belénes vivientes takes place on the afternoon of Christmas Day. The local children deliver their Christmas present request letters to the Reyes Magos, the three Kings.
This is a family day in Andalucia when all members gather for a meal that starts around midday and lasts until late on Christmas Day night. Traditionally, gifts were not exchanged until the 6th January, but the influence of people from the north of Europe has changed this slightly. Most children now have half their gifts on Christmas Day and the other half on the 6th January.
Unlike in the UK, All Fool’s Day, or April Fool’s Day, is celebrated on the 28th December in Spain and is called ‘Day of the Innocents’. Adults, children and the media all join in to play practical jokes on one another and the public. The tradition has a more sinister origin. When Herod heard there was a new King of the Jews born, he ordered all male children under the age of two years in Bethlehem to be slaughtered. The day is named for all the innocents killed that night.
On the 28th December, various towns in Andalucia hold Verdiales competitions. There are three forms of Verdiales flamenco singing and the groups that practice them are called 'pandas'. Each panda has its own distinctive traditional costume and dance. The pandas compete with one another.
Barely recovered from St. Stephen's Day (26th December), the Spanish family again congregate on New Year's Eve to celebrate the New Year.
Traditionally the family have a large, later than usual, dinner in preparation for Las doce uvas de la suerte.
The 12 grapes tradition dates back to 1909 when there was a bumper crop of grapes. One grape is eaten at each chime of the clock at midnight on the 31st December. Nowadays, most families have the television tuned in to the party that is happening in Plaza Mayor in Madrid. If you manage to eat all 12 grapes then you are guaranteed good luck during the forthcoming year.
After midnight, the streets of the towns and cities come alive again as party goers of all ages, set off to party the night away.
Until recently, Epiphany, the 6th January, was the big day for Spanish families when gifts were exchanged and families got together to eat. Nowadays, most families split the gift exchanging between the 25th December and the 6th January when the three Kings, Melchior from Persia, Gaspar (also called "Caspar" or "Jaspar") from India, and Balthazar from Arabia, arrived in Bethlehem carrying gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold. The suspense starts at dusk on the 5th January when just about every hamlet, village, town and city, have cabalgata, parades, when the three Kings parade through the streets, on foot or on the back of decorated lorries. I actually witnessed one, many years ago, where the Kings were on real camels. The Kings toss sweets to the children as they pass.
Pope Benedict XVI, was elected in 2005 and retired in 2013. He holds a number of records, he is the first pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415, and the first to do so on his own initiative since Celestine V in 1294. On the 4th September 2020, Benedict XVI became the longest-lived person to have held the office of pope, at 93 years, 4 months, 16 days, surpassing Leo XIII, who died in 1903. He is particularly loved by Andalucians because he proclaimed that the Three Wise Men came from Andalucia. Well, he should know.
Back home, the children are supposed to leave their shoes at the door to receive their gifts, presumably after the Kings have done their rounds with sweets.
The following day, the 6th January, starts with a breakfast of Roscón de Reyes, three Kings cake. This sweet bread, decorated with dried fruits and sugar, is sold in huge numbers from bakers and supermarkets during the early days of January. Then the families gather for another extended Christmas lunch and the exchange of gifts.