Learn where locals go, what they eat and how they celebrate the most magical time of year in Barcelona, Spain
If you’ve just moved to the fabulous city of Barcelona or plan to vacation here over the Christmas holiday, you must be wondering how locals celebrate the most anticipated time of year – Christmas.
Look no further for everything you need to know to have a magical holiday season in the Catalonia capital.
We’re an American expat family that have been living abroad in Spain for more than three years. And we’ve only ventured back to the U.S. for one Christmas – which means we’ve celebrated the last three holidays in Europe.
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It has been a dream to experience – truly magical. But it’s also added a whole nother level of stress to planning! Things here in Spain during Christmas are of course different.
As Americans, we like our traditions. The Christmas tree cutting, stocking hanging, gingerbread house decorating… it’s those festive events of the season that make Christmas so magical.
And it’s those same special traditions that don’t really exist in this part of the globe. So we had our work really cut out for us when moving abroad. How would we continue the beloved traditions from home while embracing all the Catalan pastimes in our new life abroad? It hasn’t been easy…but I think we’ve finally figured out how to blend both!
Celebrating Christmas in Barcelona, Spain Like a Local
Santa Clause or Papa Noel? Neither!
While Santa Clause (or Papa Noel) is the star of the show in most countries around the world, Spain has a different take on who brings the gifts. No surprise!
I actually lost sleep over this! How would we explain this all to our three little ones?
But surprisingly, my kids drew their own conclusions (as kids are so good at doing) and decided that if you live in Spain, Santa lets the Three Kings do all the gifting. But everywhere else in the world is his territory ha! I mean, he can’t possibly cover the entire globe in ONE night anyway…
God, am I grateful for their vivid imaginations!
Children in Spain wait anxiously for January 6 when the Three Kings (Los Reyes Magos) visit homes and adorn Christmas trees with presents. The eve before Three Kings Day, large festivals and parades are held to welcome the kings – Melchor, Gazpar, and Baltasar.
Sometimes they arrive by float. Other times by boat, if you’re in the Barceloneta area. And once I’ve even heard of their arrival by horse and carriage. The arrival is very special and widely celebrated.
This night is the opportunity children have to give a hand-written note to their favorite king with their gift wish list inside. Once the parade and music begins, handfuls of candy are tossed into the sky for children to snag. Before bedtime, children leave their slippers outside their doors for the Three Kings to “fill”. Naughty children receive…coal! Somethings really are the same no matter where in the world you go!
While in Barcelona, if you were really hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa, fear not! He may not be on every street corner ringing a Salvation Army bell, but he’s here.
Check the El Corte Ingles department store in Placa Catalunya for a chance to sit on the big guy’s lap. Other places we’ve spotted him are at the antique mini train station at Parc d’La Orenata or the L’Illa shopping mall on Avinguda Diagonal.
Caga Tio & The Caganer
Two characters that are big celebrities here in Spain during Christmas you’ve probably never heard of! The Caga Tio (or pooping log) visits households every year and promises to deliver presents – or rather poop presents – as long as children feed it every night leading up to Christmas.
Strange? Absolutely! But memorable at best! And wait, there’s more! The Caganer is also a poop-themed Christmas tradition in the form of mini figurines squatting to do their “business”. Why? As awful and ridiculous as this sounds, there is actually a lovely meaning behind it!
We all poop, right? Of course! So the caganer is meant to resemble that no matter where we come from, we are all human and by nature all the same. Beautiful, huh? These two characters can be found for purchase (since I know you’re dying to have one of each for your home!), at the Fira de Santa Lucia Christmas Market in front of the Barcelona Cathedral from Nov 26 – December 22.
Not visiting Barcelona for Christmas? No worries, you can buy the next best thing on Amazon – a book explaining the history of the Caganer or a t-shirt with the pooping log himself on the front!
Traditional Christmas Foods in Spain
On Three Kings Day, families gather together to enjoy a real feast! The usual centerpiece dish is a roast lamb, suckling pig or seafood. Sweet treats such as turron (a nougat type dessert made with honey sugar and egg white with toasted almond) , marzipan (almond paste based), and Roscon de Reyes are also served.
Roscon de Reyes is an airy sweet bread with candied fruits on top to resemble colorful presents. But the real surprise is inside! Baked inside the bread is a tiny figuring of the baby Jesus. Whomever receives the figurine in his or her piece of cake wins the crown of king for the day!
Barcelona Christmas Markets
Nothing is more European than visiting an outdoor Christmas Market! The stalls, the twinkling lights and the scents of the season fill the air. It’s the perfect way to get into the holiday spirit and spend some money in the process!
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And while Barcelona may not be as Christmasy as villages in France and Germany, it is no stranger to the pastime of outdoor markets. The oldest and most famous being the Fira de Santa Lucia (late November – Dec 22) which takes place right in front of the Barcelona Cathedral. What a perfect backdrop!
Vendors are stacked row after row selling nativity figures, caga tios and caganers (of course!), dried fruit wreaths, warm winter hats, toy trinkets and ornaments. Each stall more beautifully decorated than the next. In the past we’ve even seen real Christmas trees sold here.
Next is the Fira de Nadal de Sagrada Familia (late November – Dec 22) held in the park beside the basilica. While slightly smaller than the cathedral market, it has a lovely local and authentic feel. In addition to Christmas decorations, there are also stands selling traditional winter snacks such as roasted nuts, baked sweet potatoes, hot chocolate and some of the best churros around!
Brand new to the Christmas scene is the Fira de Nadal de Port Vell (early December – early January). Located down at the port near the Columbus Monument, the fair includes an LED Christmas tree, big wheel, traditional carousel and floating nativity scene.
Where to See Christmas Lights in Barcelona
As a child, I remember piling into the car with my parents and driving around to gaze at neighborhood Christmas lights. It was one of my favorite things to do growing up.
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And even though we live on the other side of the globe, the tradition still lives today with my own children. In Barcelona! So where are the best spots for twinkling lights and beautiful holiday decor here?
Passeig de Gracia, the famous boulevard with every high-end shop imaginable transforms into a holiday wonderland. Strands of warm white lights drape across rows of traffic. It’s a beautiful sight to see!
Placa de Sant Jaume, the large square directly outside of the Generalitat de Catalunya building, adopts a different holiday theme each year usually involving the nativity. And always in the backdrop sits an enormous and brightly lit Christmas tree. Make sure to bring your camera when visiting this festive spot!
Gran Via de Les Corts Catalanes is the long stretch of main road running from L’Hospitalet to Diagonal Mar. And during Christmastime, this avenue is famous for illuminating letters hanging overhead – actually the words of a Catalan song, I still have yet to figure out! But it’s always fun to see these lyrics year after year.
Cuitat Vella – The barrio of Gothic Quarter is majestic any time of year – but most especially during Christmas. Your eyes won’t know which direction to dart in first, as each narrow alleyway is more delicately decorated than the next. Getting lost in the quiet streets is half the fun, so finding the holiday lights along the way is just an added bonus.
A Barcelona Christmas Date Night
The first Christmas we spent in Barcelona, I decided to surprise my husband with a special date night. Something memorable that we would always look back on. So I booked a babysitter, found a quaint tapas restaurant in Gothic Quarter and bought tickets to an orchestra performance at Palau de La Musica.
The Christmas Gala was the perfect holiday setting. Listening to the live music and opera singers bellowing Oh Holy Night and We Wish You a Merry Christmas was something neither one of us will ever forget. I highly recommend checking out their website for performance dates during the Christmas season.
Christmas Traditions from America
As mentioned, part of our challenge with celebrating Christmas overseas was trying to keep alive our old traditions from home. Some were easier than others.
I pulled out the old recipe card for Granny sugar cookies that has been in our family for generations. I baked these cut-out cookies with my mom every Christmas when I was little and they’ve become a treat we all look forward to.
We danced around our little fifth floor Barcelona apartment to Christmas tunes while decorating our tree. We watched favorite classics like Frost the Snowman, ELF, and Its A Wonderful Life.
We crafted gingerbread houses (which collapsed moments later)…. and then ate the crumbs. And yes, we wore matching Christmas pj’s while reading The Night Before Christmas.
In so many ways, we are the same. But after three years of living abroad we are different. Christmastime is a reminder of how we’ve learned to blend both the old with the new. And I think we’ve done a damn good job, if I do say so myself.
So enjoy your travels to Barcelona during the Christmas holiday!! It’s a special place to spend the last month of the year.
And with 2020 coming to an end and the New Year upon us, we have NO clue what lies ahead. But it is with certainty that we welcome the changes and even the challenges.
We are thankful. We are blessed.
As the song goes, “Another year over…and a new one just begun.”
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