In Spain, the Christmas season lasts for nearly two weeks, from December 24 all the way through the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. Teach your kids about this fascinating culture in a festive way by indulging in a few Spanish holiday treats, learning a Spanish carol, or dressing up your house with Spanish Christmas decorations.
Decorations -- Both Naughty and Nice
The traditional Spanish Christmas decoration which is found in most homes throughout the country is a nativity scene called "un belén," which is the Spanish word for Bethlehem. Give a special Spanish touch to your own nativity scene by placing a bull amongst the other farm animals. In the Catalan region of Spain, there is a special decoration which might appeal to your kids' mischievous sense of humor: a small log known as "Caga Tio" or "poo log." Decorated with a red Catalan hat and a big smiley face, this log is supposed to be fed candy every evening and kept covered in a blanket by the children in the household, so he stays happy and poops out lots of nice treats on Christmas Eve!
Just as the candy cane is perhaps the most typical Christmas treat in the U.S., in Spain it just wouldn't be Christmas without the candy known as turrón. Turrón is a nougat made out of almonds, honey and sugar, and comes in both hard and soft varieties. Other Spanish Christmas treats include marzipan, a candy made from ground almonds, egg whites, and sugar; and mantecados, or polvorones, which are a type of cookie made from wheat flour, almonds, sugar, cinnamon and pork fat. You should be able to find marzipan and perhaps turrón in a gourmet or international grocery store, or you could even try to prepare them at home.
Carols and Bells
Christmas Carols in Spain are known as "villancicos", and many of these date back to the Renaissance. They are typically sung at parties and celebrations, particularly by children. If you'd like to learn some of these carols with your kids, look for recordings and lyrics of Spanish favorites such as "Fum, Fum Fum" and "Riu, Riu, Chiu". You can sing these songs around the tree on Christmas Eve, as Spanish families do. Another fun Christmas Eve musical tradition involves the ringing of bells -- at midnight all of the church bells sound, calling everyone to a church service called "La Misa Del Gallo," or the rooster's mass. Whether or not your family plans to attend midnight mass, or even to stay up that late on Christmas Eve, you can still follow up an evening of carol singing by giving each child a small hand bell to ring in Christmas Day the Spanish way.
The Three Kings
The end of the Spanish Christmas celebration comes on January 6th, with the celebration "El Día de los Tres Reyes Magos" -- "the day of the three magi" -- when the three wise men arrived with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for baby Jesus. Throughout Spain there are often big parades held on January 5th, and children then receive presents from the kings on the morning of the 6th. As this holiday is celebrated not only in Spain but throughout the Spanish-speaking world, there are even three kings parades held in major U.S. cities such as New York and Miami. Even if you don't live near enough to see such a parade, though, your kids can still celebrate the holiday as they do in Spain by putting straw and carrots for the kings' donkeys into their shoes on the night of the 5th, and then leaving those shoes on a windowsill, balcony or porch. Fill the shoes with small stocking-stuffer-type gifts and treats -- preferably protected by a sack or plastic bag, particularly if these shoes have been well-worn -- for your children to find the next morning.