The Spanish don’t open their Christmas presents until next year but this fiesta-loving nation doesn’t wait for the Three Kings to start the party. Essential singles out six festive must-dos from Andalucía’s packed December calendar of seasonal traditions to make the last month of the year feel like Christmas every day.


The Spanish don’t open their Christmas presents until next year but this fiesta-loving nation doesn’t wait for the Three Kings to start the party. Essential singles out six festive must-dos from Andalucía’s packed December calendar of seasonal traditions to make the last month of the year feel like Christmas every day.



Christmas in Calle Larios Will Light up Your Life

Crisis, what energy crisis? It’s been looking a lot like Christmas since late November in Málaga, which switched on its festive illuminations a week ahead of most other cities. From now until Three Kings Night, over two million LEDs will add a festive twinkle to 500 streets in the provincial capital, weaving around palm trunks and decorating the branches of fig and almond trees all the way from the Alameda Gardens to Muelle Uno at the port. However this year’s shorter schedule (lights off at midnight on weekdays, 2am on weekends and holidays), will save €7.000 in electricity bills and 4 tons in CO2 emissions.

The lights of Calle Larios are almost as famous as Oxford Street’s. Last year’s Winter Forest theme drew tens of thousands to shop beneath a canopy of 342 sparkly leaves and 100 glittering suns. The visiting Mayor of Vigo, known as El Rey de la Navidad for his own city’s illuminations, hailed it ‘a miracle cure for woes’.

For more miracles, head round the corner to see Málaga cathedral shape-shifting before your eyes in a spell-binding video-mapping show, projected onto the south tower three times nightly. On the outskirts of town, LEDs are blooming all over La Concepción Gardens for Las Luces del Bótanico, a magical horticultural happening with perennial appeal. This year’s Follow the Star theme retraces the Wise Men’s journey to Bethlehem via an illuminated Hanging Gardens of Babylon and an iridescent River Jordan – all at an energy cost per visitor equal to firing up a filter coffee machine.

Last year’s record 110,000 ticket sales created a Parking Nightmare before Christmas but extra shuttle buses and car spaces have been laid on this season.


These boozy bonfire sing-alongs are the spirit of Christmas

Zambombas hark back to the 18th century when neighbours shared communal patios. Come December, they fired up the brazier, drew around it on rickety chairs and, when sufficiently fortified with shots of anis liqueur, burst forth in villancicos (bawdy flamenco carols).

For musical accompaniment, they’d use anything to hand – an empty anis bottle banged with a spoon, or a cloth-covered flowerpot agitated with a stick. The low grating sound made by their makeshift friction drums gave the zambomba its curious name.

The lyrics to some villancicos would shock many a C of E vicar (Catholic priests are said to be ‘woker’). There’s one about the baby Jesus getting drunk on strawberry juice and another about a ‘millionaire business’ called the Vatican – best brush up your Spanish!

When everyone moved into apartments these courtyard carol fests nearly died out, until 2015 when the zambombas of Jerez and Arcos de la Frontera were given Cultural Heritage status as authentic oral traditions. Now every town in Andalucia is jumping on the ‘Zambombandwagon’ and these impromptu private celebrations have become public events with food stalls, cash bars, and professional musicians in the mix. Top pick in Jerez are the zambombas in the Palacio del Virrey Laserna gardens where the crackle of firewood, the scent of aniseed, and merry carolling voices come together in a warm Christmas hug.


You won’t need a passport to visit these little towns of Bethlehem

Leave the Coast’s electric bling behind and head for the hills to experience life in the oil lamp age.

Throughout December many of Spain’s pueblos blancos resemble The Life of Brian film set for their annual Belén Viviente, a re-enactment of the Christmas story in the streets starring a cast of locals in flowing biblical robes plus their donkeys, ducks and sheep. If you thought you spotted a Roman Centurion outside the post office you weren’t dreaming.

Way more entertaining than the dreaded school nativity play, you can watch butchers, bakers and blessed (are the) cheesemakers plying their ancient artisan crafts, then eat the results.

St. Francis of Assisi started the tradition in 1223, casting an ox, an ass, and a human Holy Family in his Christmas Eve mass. Due to the impracticalities of working with children and animals in enclosed spaces, ‘Living Bethlehems’ died out but tourism brought them back and this year they were secularised as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Spain. The Belén of Beas in Huelva, dating from 1970, is Andalucía’s oldest while Arcos de la Frontera in Cádiz province lays claim to the biggest.

Miniature nativity scenes are also a big deal. Spain’s King Carlos lll shipped over an elaborate 600-piece set from Naples in 1795, since when no devout Spanish Catholic home, church vestibule, or important municipal building has been without a display. Often super-realistic with working watermills and flowing rivers, Sevilla’s annual Christmas Feria de Belén specialises in figurines if you want to make your own.

Meanwhile the world’s largest collection of nativity scenes (70) is open year-round at the Museo de Belenes in Mollina, 16km from Málaga. A 25 metre display of Andalucia in 1AD and a mini-nativity viewed from the perspective of a Bethlehem stable rat are highlights.


Get thee to a nunnery for a little taste of heaven

Dulces de Navidad are a guilty Spanish pleasure but none are more sinfully scrumptuous than the Christmas sweets made by nuns.

Behind convent walls, this secret sister act of home bakers are up to their wimples in flour right now, praying they’ll beat the yuletide rush. Since the Reconquest, cloistered orders like the Franciscans, Carmelites and Poor Clares have eked out a simple living from sales of their buttery mantecados, powdery polvorones, and boozy borrachuelos, laced with a naughty nip of anis.

You can get them online these days but it’s more fun to shop from the Sisterhood direct. There are convent confiterías all over Spain (16 in Granada city alone) and the procedure is much the same: you ring a bell beside a small portcullis in the wall; a nun appears behind it whispering Ave María in traditional greeting, to which you may optionally reply ‘Sin pecado concebida’ (conceived without sin) – although a simple buenos días will do. Then you order from the price list, place your money on a revolving turntable and dulces appear in its place, like a miracle.

Mother of God truffles, marzipan Sacred Hearts… every order has its signature recipes and guards them with the secrecy of the confessional, although these more-ish sweetmeats were originally Moorish. The ingredients were given a ‘Christian’ twist with lard instead of olive oil in Spanish Inquisition days, when refusing to eat pork was proof of heresy.

The sugar rush they pack seems more vice than virtue but you can tuck in with a clear conscience because they’ve been blessed by nuns. And they are, indeed, divine!


There’s more than a fat chance of winning El Gordo

El Gordo is Spain’s secular miracle at Christmas, distributing sack-loads of cash to thousands of lucky winners and making entire communities rich overnight.

The biggest prize pool in the world, worth a staggering €2.5 billion this year offers better odds than any other lottery. With 170 jackpots worth €4 million each, 170 second prizes of €1.25 million and an avalanche of smaller prizes, no wonder 98 per cent of Spanish adults indulge in a flutter.

Millions tune in to the five-hour televised Sorteo on December 22, when the numbers and corresponding prize values are ‘sung’ by a choir from Madrid’s San Ildefonso School in a relentless numeric litany as the balls are drawn from golden drums. The tradition goes back to 1812 when the world’s second oldest lottery began.

Tickets cost a whopping €200 each and are sold in tenths (decimos), explaining why a whole village can win a jackpot prize. In 2011, only one of the 250 villagers of Sodeto in Huesca did NOT hold a winning ticket. But he cashed in after all by making a documentary about the extraordinary windfall.

Andalucía is the second luckiest region in Spain to buy a ticket, after Madrid, having produced jackpot winners 59 times. For a €20 stake, you’d be a fathead not to join in.


In AndalucÍa it’s no dream – ALL your Christmases can be white

Hot toddies, roaring log fires, walks in a winter wonderland and sleigh rides in the snow… the Sierra Nevada ticks all those boxes with sparkly Christmas bows on.

Grey Britain hasn’t had a proper white Christmas since 2010 but, two hours from sunny Málaga, there’s a guaranteed delivery of the white stuff from November to April on the slopes of Granada’s mighty Mulhacén, 3,479 metres tall and Iberia’s highest peak.

The Sierra Nevada Ski, Snowboard and Mountain Resort has one of the longest winter sports seasons in Europe. And the sunniest. Your snowman won’t melt but with 255 days of sunshine a year you can tan while you triple cork through Europe’s largest snowboard park and slalom down 110 km of pistes. ‘Ski in the morning, sunbathe in the afternoon’ is a lifestyle here. Dog sledding, snow biking, mountain trekking and night skiing through stunning National Parkland are others.

Santa arrives during Christmas week, whizzing down floodlit pistes with a sackful of surprises for the little ones. Pradollano village, the resort’s beating heart, twinkles with festive lights and there are carol concerts in the square.

Go for the day or stay over – if there are any lift passes left! The advance sales record was broken in October. For the white Christmas of your dreams, El Lodge delivers an al fresco heated swimming pool and sunset views of snow-capped peaks from a hot tub. Owned by the prestigious Marbella Club Group, you can ski directly onto the mountain or watch the action slope-side from the sun deck, cocooned in a cashmere blanket.