The season is supposed to about giving and togetherness, but the one thing that makes all Spaniards glow with fellowship just before Christmas is the prospect of winning the lottery. Known as El Gordo, or ‘the fat one’, the year’s biggest jackpot is drawn on 22 December with great ceremony. It is watched on TV by a breathless population of stakeholders, who pay €20 for a one-tenth share of a single ticket. Everyone hopes for the maximum payout of somewhere around €700 million.
While Christmas itself tends to be relatively low-key, and even New Year’s Eve (or Nochevieja) can seem pretty quiet in most Spanish cities, the streets fill again for the procession of the three kings. Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar are the original gift-bringers of Christian tradition, and remain a bigger deal than Santa Claus in this country, throwing candy to kids from parade floats on 5 January before delivering presents direct to their homes the next day.
The two big meals of the holidays are eaten on Christmas Eve and 5 January – the eve of the Epiphany. Various meats and cheeses will be piled up on platters known as entremeses, and there’ll be an abundance of seafood, from lobster and grilled prawns to the braised octopus that is popular even deep in the Iberian interior.
In Castilla y Leon it’s not Christmas without a rack of local lamb, and Catalans associate the season with a minced meat and pasta soup called galets. The lingering influence of the Moors is evident in almond-based sweets, such as turrón nougat, devoured through December. Another favourite is Andalucian biscuits, known as mantecados baked according to a Renaissance-era recipe with lard and powdered sugar. The closest thing to a Spanish Christmas cake is roscon del reyes, a ring-shaped cream and sponge confection studded with coloured, sugared jelly candies. Local bakeries said to make the best of these will often see queues around the block to buy them before Kings Day on 6 January.