Spending the Holidays Abroad in Spain

In the eight years that I’ve been in Madrid, I’ve never fully loved spending the holidays abroad without my family. Many people have told me some horror stories about their families and why they don’t get along with them. However, that’s never been my experience. Although I come from a single-parent home, my mother’s family is extremely close. It didn’t occur to me that my family was a little different than others until I got older. My mother’s four brothers protected, guided, and spoiled me rotten. Instead of a “daddy’s girl,” you could definitely call me an “uncle’s girl.” Anyone that has known me for a significant amount of time can tell you that I can go on and on about my uncles and the bond that I have with all six of them at length, my dad’s two brothers included.  

Uncle Ricky

I especially love celebrating Christmas with my uncle Ricky. He’s my favorite of all my uncles and always has been. We’ve been close since I came into this world. It’s no family secret that Uncle Ricky has a favorite niece whom he affectionately refers to as Baby Love (and that’s definitely a reference to the song by the Supremes). 

A teddy bear in front of a Christmas Tree branch

I feel like the real reason I’m such a jet setter is that I constantly saw my uncle packing his things into a suitcase and traveling all around the world when I was a kid.  He did a semester abroad and has sung at so many places in Europe. Uncle Ricky has never truly revealed how many places he has been to and performed at, and I suspect he never will. He always brought me back something from his travels, whether a memory or a souvenir. I most remember admiring a teddy bear that wore a London T-shirt that used to sit in his bedroom. It really didn’t belong to me, but he never minded if I played with it when I visited. 

The Holiday Season

Christmases with Uncle Ricky were always the best because he’s the most cheerful of my grandmother’s seven children. He’d always stop by my grandmother’s house and put on the Christmas music. I remember the year that SWV came out with their Christmas album and he put on Coko’s rendition of Give Love on Christmas Day. It’s been one of my favorite Christmas carols ever since. 

Once Uncle Ricky purchased his home, he went all out and bought everyone stockings. He took special care to make the house, which is always well decorated, nice and cozy. All the art in my uncle’s home has a very special meaning. We would pick out a different piece at street festivals or cultural events. He’d always ask me for my opinion before he bought something. At eight and nine years old, it made me feel important. 

Family Dinner

Christmas at Uncle Ricky’s always has a full spread of southern soul food made by my mom, aunts, uncles, and grandmother. My mom’s mac and cheese and collard greens never fails to steal the show. My Uncle Bill is always responsible for the turkeys. He fries one and jerks and seasons the other to perfection. We all get together at Uncle Ricky’s in the evening because my Uncle Pierre and Aunt Belinda are both police officers and often have to work the holiday. After dinner, dessert, and cocktails, we open presents and share stories, memories, and laughs.

Some friends of the family sometimes join the immediate family. Even if a random person stops by, uncle Ricky makes sure that there is something under the tree for them to unwrap. We never discuss rules about gifting in my family. My grandmother and her children are very close. We buy a present for each person, no matter how big or small it needs to be. Because the immediate family is so large, each person walks away with at least six or seven gifts. I have brought friends home with me on occasion who have expressed the fact that their Christmas experiences hadn’t been the greatest. I have never failed to create a magical experience for them. Well, not me… but my family and our genuine love we have for each other. 

Holidays Abroad

Since moving abroad, every Christmas — except for my first two years — hasn’t lived up to the magic of Uncle Ricky’s house. I have since lost both of my grandfathers during December, a year apart from one another, eerily enough on the same day. It has never truly felt like the holidays without my family. I have always heard of the term ”Holiday Blues,” but had no idea what it truly meant. 

The Christmas Tree at Puerta del Sol, in Madrid Spain, a beautiful part of celebrating holidays abroad

In my experience, it just comes over you without warning. I believe it strikes as you watch people celebrate the holidays and talk about their holiday plans. The depression, or blues, comes about because you cannot relate. There is no dinner for you to attend, no relatives to expect. Even if someone chooses to take pity on you and invite you to spend the day with their family, spending the holidays abroad isn’t quite the same as being home with your family. 

Holiday Blues

I have been invited to Christmas and New Year’s celebrations with groups of friends and even friends’ families. There always seems to be a portion of the evening or day’s festivities where I’m just overcome with sadness. It’s inexplicable and has always happened to me suddenly. I had always excitedly anticipated these invitations, gotten myself all dressed up, only to feel so very empty inside the day of. It’s a very embarrassing experience to have to excuse your feelings. I always feel the need to put on the appearance of being content and grateful to be present. 

The Christmas Tree at Puerta del Sol, in Madrid Spain, a beautiful part of celebrating holidays abroad

At the beginning of this year, I lost my father’s mother, Grandma Linda, to cancer. Words cannot express the grief I have endured over the past few months. She was such an important figure in my life. We had a special bond because she never had daughters. I was the only girl she could pass on her legacy to. We shared so many special memories together. 

Making My Own Traditions During the Holidays Abroad

I was having a conversation with one of my colleagues, and I came to the realization that the reason the holidays have always been so pleasant before is that there were people making sure that I had memories to look back on. My mother, grandmothers, aunts, and uncles have had the reins for so long. I think this year should be my turn. I’m in my mid-thirties now and it is time to start making some of my own traditions. I have even decorated my house a little for the holidays, which I have NEVER done. 

making new traditions is the start of celebrating holidays abroad

This holiday season will represent reciprocity. I have been so fortunate to have the love and support of so many people who cared enough about me to keep the magic of Christmas alive. I think it’s high time that I return the favor. Although I’m unable to travel home this year, I’m going to make my presence felt by letting each one of my loved ones know how much they mean to me, even if it is just a small gesture or a hand-written card. This year, I’m making the most of the holidays abroad.

Interested in learning more about what the holiday season is like in Spain? Check out this guide to Christmas in Madrid!

Christmas in Madrid, Spain


Christmas tree Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain
Christmas tree at Plaza Mayor in Madrid.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that Christmas has always been not only one of my favorite holidays, but also one of the most memorable holidays we celebrate in the States. People string lights, hang stockings, and set presents under ornamented Christmas trees, of course. But the overall environment of the season is, depending on where you are, so much more than that.

It can be brisk winter air, the scent of cookies and pies baking, candles on the dining room table with the lights dimmed, all while A Charlie Brown Christmas plays on the TV. Maybe it’s unfinished Monopoly games, ice skating on a frozen lake, Christmas markets, and hot chocolate. Maybe there are traditions like opening one present on Christmas Eve. Perhaps you grew up with the advent calendar and little chocolates counting down the days to Christmas. Almost every child leaves cookies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Listening for reindeer hooves on your roof are memories that countless people share. Maybe there are family traditions that don’t exactly fit the stereotype, like naughty Secret Santa gifts or taking a new family photo with Santa at the mall every year even when you and your siblings are in your 20’s. 

But have you ever thought about how other countries celebrate the Christmas holiday? Have you ever wondered about both the differences, and the similarities? The Christmas season is a big deal here in Spain, just like in the United States. In fact, given that Spain obviously doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas begins just after Halloween and lasts until early January! 

Christmas Traditions Abroad

For many in Madrid, the official holiday season begins on December 22nd. It goes all the way to January 6th, a Christian celebration known as Epiphany. Thanks to globalization and popular culture, Spain celebrates several of the same traditions as in the States. Take Christmas lights, for example.

There are, however, some key differences. For example, December 22nd is El Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad, also called El Gordo de Navidad. This is one of the most popular loterías, or lotteries, in all of Spain. There are five large or important prizes, including a monetary prize of 400 million euros, and then several additional smaller prizes, such as cash prizes of €1000. 

christmas spain iluminadas valence-Christmas in Madrid Spain

Many families have adopted the tradition of putting up Christmas trees. Nativity scenes, called belén, are highly popular in this traditionally Catholic country. A huge Madrid Christmas Market called El Mercado de Navidad takes over Plaza Mayor, perhaps most easily translated as their main square. It’s a tradition that, in the event that you accidentally break a figurine from your belén, you pick up the replacement from this market. 

Santa Claus and Christmas Day in Spain

There are also many places in Spain which have adopted the story of Santa Claus, also known as Papa Noel. Other places in Spain have their own versions of jolly Ol’ St. Nick. For example, the Basque Country has the legend of Olentzero, a man who comes down from the mountains on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to good children.  

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day themselves find themselves as fairly relaxed occasions. Children rise at the crack of dawn to open their presents. Families and friends dine together, sing carols, and exchange gifts. Given that the country is a peninsula, seafood is a popular Christmas food all around Spain, even in areas that aren’t coastal. These can include things like gambas a la plancha, a shrimp, or some type of seafood soup. Fish like lubina (bass) or dorada (gilt-head bream) are also very common Christmas meals. A bigger second course like cordero (lamb). Other typical foods include embutidos, or dried, cured ham. Another popular Christmas or seasonal food is called turrón, which is a sort of nougat-meets-fudge-type sweet made with honey, sugar, egg white, and typically some kind of nuts like peanuts or almonds. 

The Twelve Days of Epiphany

christmas parade madrid

Another important and diverse element of Madrid’s Christmas celebration follows Christmas Day itself. It carries over into the New Year and is known as the twelve days of Epiphany. Epiphany ends on January 6th. This holiday showcases and celebrates three Christmas characters that North America’s Christmas holiday tales mostly skim over: the Three Wise Men, also known as the Three Kings, or in Spain, Los Tres Reyes Magos — the Three Magician Kings!

The Celebration of Epiphany

As the story goes, these three kings — Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar — came bearing gifts after Jesus’ birth. And while these three kings get just a little bit of airtime in Christmas sermons at church or as figures in nativity scenes, Spain has gone the extra mile and given them a full parade, called a cabalgata, on January 5th. There are several cabalgatas across all of Spain in major cities and bigger towns. Madrid’s cabalgata alone typically draws over 100,000 people. The cabalgata, like any other parade, features extravagant floats, candy-throwers, and in Madrid, a children’s choir. People even bring umbrellas to shield themselves from all the sweets thrown into the crowd. 

Similar to Santa Claus, the Three Kings bring presents to children on January 6th, the end of Epiphany. Some churches celebrate it as the day of Jesus’s baptism. And just as children and families hang stockings and set out cookies and milk for Santa, Spanish children will sometimes leave shoes outside their doors or under the trees for the Three Kings to fill with smaller gifts in addition to the larger ones left under the tree. They also leave out, in place of milk, cookies, and carrots, biscuits and water for the Three Kings’ camels! And on the morning of Epiphany, Spaniards typically eat a breakfast of a special treat called el roscón de reyes, which is a circular and decorative pastry. 

madrid spain parade

Christmas Controversy

In recent years, the Three Kings have also been the subject of a bit of controversy. Given that the kings were traditionally played by Spanish councillors, the country has a history of using black-face during this festival, both for the black king Balthazar and also for his gift-bearing page boys. With a less explicit history of racism in the country, many Spaniards, particularly traditionalists and those of the older generation, still don’t fully understand why this is seen by other countries or cultures as problematic. However, in recent years, some areas in Spain have hired black actors to play the part instead. 

Celebrating Christmas in another country is a wonderful time to experience other traditions first-hand. For your next Spanish holiday, check out Madrid during Christmas. The holiday is one of the biggest celebrations of the year, and the cabalgata is one celebration you wouldn’t want to miss. Not to mention, the Madrid’s weather in December and January is milder than other places, so you can enjoy the festivities without a ton of snow or bitter cold. 

madrid spain