I am Juanjo Mangas and I have been living in Madrid for many years now. My relationship with the Netherlands started in the seventies, when I was in my twenties and I spent one summer as a student at the old ITT in The Hague, living in the residence Krakeelhof in Delft. Like Bogart would say, that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, which continues up to this day.
In those days, the difference in culture, presently fading because of globalization, was more noticeable. Now we celebrate festivities that in those days were completely unknown, like Halloween or the Chinese New Year. Christmas also isn’t celebrated how it used to be, but we still maintain some old customs.
Although the merchandisers tell us Christmas starts in November, the beginning of the Christmas period starts on December 22, which is the day of the Christmas Lottery. In all of Spain, that morning for several hours, you’ll be hearing children singing out loud the numbers of the marbles that come out of the lottery barrel, and the prize it has won. The moment you hear that singing, you know Christmas is coming.
The end is marked by the arrival of the three kings from the East, who in Spain we call the Magic Kings, at Bethlehem with their presents for the Child born in Bethlehem. But also, during the night of the 5th of January, they give presents to all the children that have been good. This awaiting for the arrival of the three Kings makes the Christmas period in Spain a bit longer than in countries where the presents are given on December 25.
Besides writing a letter to the Kings in which they tell how well they have behaved and what presents they want, the children are going to sleep, leaving their shoes close to the balcony or a window in order for the kings, who travel on camels loaded with gifts, to leave a present in their shoes. Some parents prepare a glass of liquor and some nougat, which magically have disappeared the next morning, surely eaten by some King, maybe by Baltasar, the black King, who is very much liked by the children. Once my parents told me that a camel had eaten some moss from the crib, but I never believed a camel could enter through the window, however magical the Kings were.
Another tradition is the crib, or the nativity scene, which is a sort of miniature stable scene, build in a central spot of the house, where you can see the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph and the Child, surrounded by pastors, sheep and little angels. You can buy the figures and houses of the Nativity Scene at the Christmas markets. The grass is represented by moss, the rocks by cork, the roads by sand, the rivers by aluminum foil, which is also used to make the stars that are attached to the blue paper that represents the sky. The Magic Kings arrive at the Stable, mounted on their camels, following the star the leads them, in this case a sort of comet hanging from a fishing line. And the children move the Kings every day closer to the stable with the crib, measuring the distance so that they arrive exactly on the 6th of January.
It is difficult to say what would be the typical Spanish Christmas meal, because every region cooks something different. But possibly in all of Spain you can eat “King’s Bagel” (roscón de Reyes), which, according to its name has the form of a bagel, but then with the size of a pizza. I couldn’t give you the exact recipe, but as far as I know it is very similar to biscuit: flower, yeast, milk, eggs and sugar. What causes the typical taste is the zest of orange peel and the orange blossom water that are mixed through the dough. You shape the right form of the cake, cover it with sugar and almond flakes, decorate it with frosted fruit and put it in the oven. The way to eat it is sopping it with hot chocolate milk, which is a real treat during the cold winter days.
Another peculiar tradition about the King’s Cake: before putting it in the oven, a bean gets hidden in the dough; the one who finds it is crowned “the King of the bean”, which is why a lot of “King’s Bagels” are sold together with a carton crown in the box. The down side is that this “King of the bean” also has to pay for the King’s Bagel, why he is sometimes called “the idiot of the bean” instead. Although the tradition of the bean is vanishing, substituted by a ceramic figure, the expression “beanidiot” is still very much alive for all sorts of situations. Better not being called that.