Christmas in Spain
A Brief History
Tradition holds that St. Paul brought the good news to Spain before his death—for he indicates his plans to do so in Romans 15:24, 28. Though there is no conclusive proof that he did make it to Spain, there is no proof that he did not. Regardless, by the end of the second century, Christian churches in Spain are mentioned in Tertullian’s writings. Therefore, it is a valid assumption that Christianity had been introduced sometime in the late first century.
Remnants of Roman rule--Aqueduct, Segovia, Spain
As the Roman Empire’s power waned, the Iberian Peninsula (the area which includes modern day Spain and Portugal) was invaded by various groups over the next few centuries including the Suebi, Vandals and Visigoths (all Germanic people) and finally the Moors (North African Berbers and Arabs). Spain remained under Islamic rule for eight centuries. Jewish culture flourished under Islamic rule (unfortunately, that would end when Queen Isabella married King Ferdinand). The displaced Christian nobles of Spain who lived in the north after their loss to the Moors began a movement called Reconquista. Eventually, over a period of eight centuries, Spain was reclaimed by the Christians. In 1480 the king and queen initiated the Spanish Inquisition—it began as a means to assure that the citizenry was Christian.
Alhambra, Remnants of Muslim Rule
Unfortunately, this eventually led to a ruling that anyone who was not Christian was required to convert or leave the country. Some have postulated that though this plan began with religious motive, that it was ultimately driven by greed on the part of the monarch. The edict forcing Jews and Muslims out of the country required them to leave all their valuables behind. There is evidence that the overwhelming majority of those who were persecuted and divested of their possessions were wealthy. In one town, the funds gained from these activities were used to build a royal residence.
In 1492 the king and queen funded Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the 'New World.' Columbus would eventually make four voyages to the 'New World' in all. Now, more than five centuries later, Spanish influence is integral to the culture and language of most of the countries in the western hemisphere.
Today, Spain is a predominantly Catholic Christian nation. Thus, Christmas is an important holiday. Christmas Eve is called La Noche Buena, the Blessed Night. People light bonfires, called luminarias, in public squares and outside church walls. Plays called Los Pastorets depict the shepherds' adoration of the Christ Child.
Almudena Cathedral, Madrid
Christmas Eve dinner is served very late at night, sometimes before or after Midnight Mass. Families attend midnight mass or ‘La Misa Del Gallo’ (The Mass of the Rooster). This is because Spaniards believe that a rooster crowed the night Jesus was born.
Basilica San Franciso, Madrid
On Christmas Day families eat together and watch the king's annual speech on television. It has become popular in recent years to eat Christmas dinner in a local restaurant. Restaurants advertise Christmas Day menus well in advance.
Another tradition is the Christmas Day multi-billion euro lottery--a part of the Christmas celebration since 1812.
The day for gift giving in Spain is Epiphany-- on January 6. Although Santa is known here, he takes second place to the Three Wise Men. Children believe that on Epiphany Eve, January 5, the Three Kings travel to Bethlehem, through Spain. Children set out their shoes filled with straw for the Three Kings' camels.The Kings, passing in the night, fill the shoes with gifts.The tradition is that Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar brought gifts to the Christ child.
There are parades and men dress up as the Wise Men to visit hospitals and stores (much as Santa does in the US). Balthazar, the African king (in black face) is the kids’ favorite in Spain.The Wise Men are so popular there's a tradition of making dioramas of them coming to see the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is Belén in Spanish. Thus, they are called Belénes, which can be quite elaborate, with entire towns containing hundreds of figures. The intent is to represent as much of Bethlehem as possible.
Spain is second only to Japan in fish consumption. Even though the favorite meal for Christmas varies by region,it usually includes seafood. A typical meal: tapas (appetizers) followed by two or even three courses, dessert and presso and/or a small glass of brandy or liqueur. Sweets usually include a special nougat candy-- turron (just as in Italy, but pronounced differently), cookies, polvorones, mantecados and marzipan. Christmas season ends with Epiphany and is celebrated with Roscón de reye--King’s Cake. Merry Christmas in Spanish is 'Feliz Navidad' and in Catalin it is 'Bon Nadal.'
Spain has one of Europe's highest rates of heroin and cocaine addiction. This is a major contributor to the crime rate and AIDS epidemic. There are three ministries RETO, Betel and REMAR that provide drug rehabilitation and spiritual guidance to addicts. Over 100, 000 former addicts have turned their lives around thanks to these ministries. Pray for the effectiveness of these ministries across the country.
Young people distrust organized religion. Their lives are based in experience. Therefore, ministries that are to be successful need to be highly relational and authentic. There are a growing number of alternative and underground ministries that are finding success with young Spaniards. Pray for ministries such as Contra Corriente, which work with students and young adults to be relatable and effective.
There is a very large Muslim population, about two million, which is growing rapidly in Spain. Most are immigrants from Morocco, but also many other African nations. Pray for ministries who work with and among the Muslims population.