The holidays are one way to really see and experience a foreign culture. This year marks the second Christmas season that I have spent in Granada, Spain. While many things are similar, I was surprised to find many differences between Christmas in the United States and Navidad in Spain.
Just like in the United States, the streets get decorated around late November to early December. Christmas music can be heard and people are out buying presents for their loved ones. Children get a few weeks off of school and adults generally don’t work. However there are just a few too many differences … enough that I felt like a list would be a fun and informative blog post. So let’s get into it!
* I also want to note that I am basing this mostly off of my experience of living in Granada, which is in the Southern Andalucia region. Like anywhere, I know things can vary from region to region of a country. *
1. A real tree vs. a fake tree
In the United States, many people love to put up a real tree. In fact growing up, I cannot remember a Christmas without a real tree. There are places all over that sell them. You have this pot of water you put it in that has legs so the tree stands up. Your living room has this wonderful smell of pine. Ah Christmas. The bad part of this is that we cut down a lot of trees every year. How wasteful is that?
However in Spain, no one has a real tree. Yes, people put up trees. However they are always fake trees. Sure, some people in the United States put up a fake tree as well. Well in Spain, everyone does. While it’s better for the environment, that smell of pine is part of Christmas for me. Thank God they make pine-scented candles.
2. Who bears the gifts to children
Do you all remember the Three Wisemen? If you’re Christian or Catholic, likely they were a minor part of the story. They have a little place in manger scenes and it’s kind of like “oh yeah, these three dudes brought Jesus presents.” Other than that, in the United States they’re not really that important to us.
In Spain, however, it’s quite different. Traditionally the Three Wisemen have a pretty major role in the Christmas story. They have names: Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. I never knew their names before moving to Spain, to be quite honest. Spaniards believe that they are the ones who bring children gifts rather than Santa Claus. However thanks to capitalism and the whole world watching American movies, Santa Claus now also brings children presents. They call him Papa Noel. One of my students told me that Papa Noel brings them small presents and the Three Wisemen bring them large presents. That makes sense as Santa really is not a part of their story.
The Three Wisemen are celebrated on January 6th, which is the day of the Epiphany. So Spaniards still celebrate Christmas on December 25th. However Christmas is simply not over for them until January 6th. In fact, Spanish children are off of school until around January 8th every year. They get an extra week of Christmas vacation. On either the 5th or the 6th, towns and cities all over Spain have people dress up as the three Wisemen and throw candy to children in what they call a cabalgata (parade).
Also just an FYI, one of them (Balthazar) was believed to be black and Spaniards find representing this detail to be extremely important. This means a white person paints their face black. This can be shocking for many Americans as we all know black face is extremely racist. This is not meant to start anything. It’s more of just an FYI so when you see it, you’re not super super shocked.
3. Teacher gifts don’t really seem to be a thing
This is one I’ve noticed as I have worked as a teacher’s aide in the United States and then in the schools here in Spain. In the United States, it’s customary for children to bring their teachers some sort of a card or present. Sometimes us teachers would get some sweet Starbucks gift cards and mugs. I’m not saying that I did it for the presents. However teachers work hard and it’s simply nice to be appreciated.
However here in Spain, I’ve noticed that children don’t bring in Christmas gifts for their teachers. Last year at the school I worked at, several parents dressed up as the Three Wisemen. They collected money from all the parents so that these Three Wisemen could have presents to give their children in school. I remember asking the teachers I worked with if teacher gifts were common. They said no. It just seemed odd to me that their kids receiving more presents in school was more important to them.
This one surprised me a bit, to be honest. Spaniards love to talk about how open, friendly and wonderful they are. I would think they would give teacher gifts. Perhaps they do, just not at Christmas.
4. The 24th is bigger than the 25th
Christmas Eve is called La Noche Buena here. Everyone gets together and has a big celebration. Families and friends dine together. No one misses this night. Then on the 25th, people get together but it’s not quite as obligatory.
In the United States, it’s basically the opposite. In my family, we maybe might have a dinner on the 24th. However many years we were just chilling at home watching Christmas movies and enjoying time together. Then on December 25th, my family always has a big celebration. All of my cousins, aunts and uncles get together for a big dinner. Each one of my dad’s siblings takes turns hosting it. This year I will miss it, which is of course a little bit sad.
This year will be the first time I experience a Spanish Christmas. My roommate has been kind enough to invite me with her to her family’s Christmas. I have been told we will be going out. I’m sure I’ll have lots of things to write about when I return home.
5. Work groups seem to go out
In the United States, we’re all about the holiday parties. However this usually means getting together in someone’s home and wearing a tacky Christmas sweater. Office parties are usually quite a thing as well. However they typically happen at the office.
Here in Spain, people also celebrate Christmas with their coworkers. However they seem to prefer to go out instead and have a big, fancy dinner rather than host something. Both years I’ve had a Christmas lunch with the other teachers at my school. Everyone dresses up nice and we each pay between 30-35 euros for a nice meal that includes appetizers, a main course, drinks and dessert. It’s a time when people let loose with their coworkers. In Spain, people don’t really have that work and personal life divide like we do in the United States. That basically just means they’re less likely to be like “ohhh I shouldn’t get drunk in front of my coworkers.”
When you go out in the city center of Granada around this time, it’s full of people. Last weekend my friends and I couldn’t get into our favorite dance club Backstage because there was a long line. My roommate explained that it was probably because everyone was out celebrating Christmas with their coworkers. After they have their dinners, they go out for some drinks next door and continue the party until whenever they want to stop.
6. Christmas cookies are less common
One of my favorite things to do around Christmas time is make cookies. I’m talking the dough that you roll out. You have cute little cookie-cutters of trees, stockings, bells and other Christmas things. Then to top it all off, I always make my own icing with milk and powdered sugar. I’ve been making Christmas cookies like this since I was in high school.
Well couldn’t I just make them at home? Well one, we don’t have a full-sized oven in our flat. We do have a toaster oven, but I don’t think we can make cookies in there. I have some American friends who live close by who let me come over and use their oven (thanks Jean and Amy!).
The second part was that I couldn’t find powdered sugar. So while I did use an icing, it just will not be the same. I did find cookie cutters after going to about 3-4 shops.
However this is simply part of living in a foreign country. Customs are different. In the United States, every shop has holiday cookie cutters. I know exactly where to find the powdered sugar and all that I need. That’s because the shops know they will sell this stuff. Here in Spain because it’s less common, it’s harder to find.
So there you have it. Six wonderful differences between Christmas in the United States and in Spain. Have you celebrated Christmas in a country that was not your own? What differences did you note between your culture and theirs?