Spanish Christmas

Every country has their own Christmas traditions, but Spain is quite unique! Here’s a rundown of how Christmas and New Year’s Eve are celebrated here:

On December 22, the fun starts with the “Sorteo de Loteria Nacional de Navidad”. It is a day of anticipation when everyone in Spain tunes into a local radio or television station to watch the selection of prizes for Spain’s National Christmas Lottery. For three hours, children from an old private school in Madrid call out the winning lottery numbers and prizes. Everyone in Spain buys at least one ticket in the hopes of a big payout. The grand prize is 300,000 euros, but there are many, many prizes of smaller denominations as well. Each ticket is quite expensive, priced at 2o euros. It contains 5 numbers and there are at least ten tickets sold with the same number. If your ticket has the same last number as the ticket of the grand prize, you get your money back (20 euro prize). I don’t usually gamble, but I split three tickets with a friend of mine and have my fingers crossed. Here’s a video of last year’s Sorteo:

December 23 is the day of health, because when asked if someone won the lottery they most often reply “No, but at least I have my health”.

December 24 is “Noche Bueno”, Christmas Eve. It usually includes a big dinner. December 25 is Christmas Day and usually spent with family. A very typical Christmas treat in Spain is Turron. It comes in many different forms but usually always contains almonds.

Most interesting is the tradition of New Year’s Eve. People typically gather in the main square of their town and await the toll of the clock. When the moment arrives, everyone pops a grape into their mouth at the sound of each gong. Eating twelve grapes in rapid succession is a celebration of the twelve past months and provides good luck for the coming year. In the southern-most pueblo (town) in the Alicante province where I live, there are grapes very late in maturing, and it is from this region that everyone has their grapes for New Year’s Eve.

This year, on January 6, Spain celebrates Epiphany (the coming of the three kings bearing gifts for Jesus Christ). It is on this day that all the children in Spain receive their Christmas gifts and spend the day playing with them. The next day, similar to Boxing Day, marks the official start of the sale season.

That’s all for now. Two posts in one day to make up for my 10-week absence!

A very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my friends and family all over the world!

Home for a Rest

It’s been sixteen weeks since my arrival in Spain, and ten weeks since my last post! My primary excuse is that I’ve been travelling far too much! Since my last post, I’ve been to Paris, Valencia, Madrid, London, Barcelona, Venice, Milan, as well as the major cities in Northern Spain (Santiago de Compostela, A Coruña, Léon, Burgos, Bilbao, and Santander). In fact, every weekend for the past month I’ve been out of town. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m a little tired of all the travelling and am thoroughly enjoying sitting on a sofa in my apartment and writing a post for my neglected blog.

By the Seine
Raphael by the Seine River in Paris, France.

Let’s start with Paris. An absolutely beautiful city! Just walking by the Seine River, touching the Eiffel Tower, and gasping at the enormity of Notre Dame was more than fulfilling. It’s been my dream for many years to travel to Paris and finally I can say I’ve been there. To save some money, we opted to stay in an Etap hotel (a low-cast, just-the-essentials hotel chain) which was located just outside the “inner city” (the major part of the city enclosed by a circular freeway). Probably not the best choice! You might remember that Paris was in the news quite a bit in recent years because of the violence in the suburbs of the city. The root cause of the problem is that the French people are very proud and do not want to see their most beautiful city taken over by immigrants. Therefore, anyone not of French, or at least European descent, is discriminated against to the point where they cannot find work or make a living. The frustration of these people combined with a cultural mentality of violence has lead to a lot of tension between the French Parisians and the immigrants living in Paris’ suburbs. This violence, however, has not made the situation any better, but has pushed the groups farther from peace. As my high school French teacher used to say, “Violence begets Violence”. Should you go visit Beautiful Paris, do not stray far from the centre or you will encounter a cruel reality that may ruin your stay. When walking outside of the centre at night, it’s a little frightening. You have to walk very fast, and never stop for any reason. It’s easy for the locals to tell if you’re foreign and they will take advantage of you.

In stark contrast to Paris, and only a 2-3 hour train ride away, is the capital of the British Empire, London. What a difference it was to be in London! Whereas walking in Paris at night was so tense you’d jump at the sound of rustling leaves, London felt much better. Certainly London has had its fair share of problems, like most major European cities, but there is little racial or social tension there. London, as it stands, is the most multi-cultural city in the world, and anyone or everyone in London can find a job and earn a living. It makes me quite proud to live in Toronto, another great multi-cultural capital, because I have learned to see every human being equally. I never developed a mindset whereby I would classify a person’s personality based on their origin, and I feel that London is very similar in this regard.

2009-11-21 Milan, Barcelona, Venice 013.JPG
Raphael in front of Big Ben in London, England.

Alas, I only stayed in London for one night, and I will surely have to return! After a whirlwind tour of all the major sights in London, I met up with two EngSci friends of mine for dinner (Toad-in-the-hole served with London Porter). I also ended up meeting a cousin of mine who’s living in London and ended up attending an all-Maltese house party (good times). My only beef with London is the long distance between its airports and the city centre (save Heathrow).  The average door-to-plane time in Alicante is about 1 hour, but in London, it’s about three hours or more if you’re flying from Gatwick, Stansted, or Luton.

Now, how about Spain’s capital Madrid? To be honest, it’s very difficult to compare Madrid to Paris and London. While Madrid is a big city, it’s not nearly as big as other major European cities. In fact, after about two days (including visits to all the famous museums and galleries), it’s hard to find more things to do. I was in Madrid twice. The first was a day-trip with my grandmother (we took the first Ryanair flight out of Alicante at 6:30am and the last one back at 9:30pm). The royal palace and cathedral are certainly worth seeing, as well as the famous Plaza Mayor. An afternoon rest in one of Madrid’s parks (El Retiro or Casa del Campo) and then tasca-hopping (bars that sell little tid-bits of food called Tapas) and beer as it gets dark finishes off the day nicely.

2009-11-14 Madrid 073.JPG
Raphael outside of the Royal Palace in Madrid, Spain.

Barcelona, the other big city in Spain, I enjoyed more than Madrid (even though I was there for only one day in between flights). Barcelona is famous for it’s old, Gothic neighbourhoods (barrios) where you can find some of the most interesting architecture in all of Spain. Gaudi’s famous structures here include Sagrada Familia, a large cathedral design that still, to this day, is under construction. I’m planning to re-visit Barcelona in February and will speak more of it after I’ve had a longer stay.

Venice was everything I’ve ever dreamed it would be, gondolas and all. My favourites of Venice included getting lost in a maze of bridges, thin streets, and plazas, taking a gondola tour, riding the water-bus, and dancing in Venice’s only nightclub. It was really cool to arrive in Venice and find water-buses and water-taxis. It was also a nice break from the other European cities which are quite crowded with cars. Milan was nothing too special, but it’s cathedral was certainly worth seeing. It’s also the headquarters of Prada, and the resting place for Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”.

Last, but certainly not least, was my road trip in Northern Spain! We started off in the old city of Santiago de Compostela and worked our way eastward through the Spanish countryside to Santander. The northern towns are distinctly different than Alicante. Northern Spain is very green and mountainous, while Alicante is quite yellow. The northern cuisine is very rustic and wholesome, and the seafood is extremely good and fresh. If I had to live in Spain it would most probably be in a small town outside of Santander.

Pictures for all these trips can be found in my blog’s gallery (