When you hear "Spain", I bet the first things that pops into your mind are beautiful beaches and warm weather year long. OK, maybe the Spanish Inquisition too. But lets not fall for the stereotypes. Spain has a super rich culture (besides a fingers liking good gastronomy), and one of the best times to visit is the winter holidays season.
Three reasons come to me of why you should do so: the nativity scenes on display in every city and village, no matter how large or small, the Christmas markets and the Three Wise Men Parade.
The nativity scenes
Displaying nativity scenes in churches, shopping malls, main squares, and public buildings is a deeply rooted Spanish tradition. It's enough to see the people cuing for hundreds of meters to see the Belén (that's the 'nativity scene' for you and me) to realize that. The elaborate displays depicting a beautiful scene of the times are usually animated, so you can actually see the little people at work, while the Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Magi are just a small part of the scene. Living nativity scenes are not all that popular in Spain, but I find the expensive figurines against intricate landscapes very appealing. Whole cities are being recreated and if the light conditions permit it, the vegetation surrounding the houses consists of real seedling and shrubs. The locals also build small Beléns in their living rooms, with just the main protagonists, and that actually keeps the place of the Christmas tree in many households. The nativity scenes are on display from the beginning of December till the 6th or 7th of January. Free entry!
The Christmas markets
Christmas markets are organized all over Spain. Though not as popular as the German ones, they are great for sampling fresh produce and buy handmade gifts (I love how they manage to write any name on a grain of rice and transform it into a fancy necklace in a matter of minutes). From gorgeous fans to woodwork and ceramics, you can buy personalized Christmas gifts for the whole family. Some of these markets have a medieval theme where the merchants are dressed in medieval clothing (it's really funny to actually see them talking to their iPhones all dressed up like that!). Crib figurines can be also bought from the Christmas markets in case you decide to have your own nativity scene in your house this year. Free entry!
The Three Wise Men Parade (La Cabalgata de Los Reyes Magos)
And just when you might finally thing the winter holidays are over and you can settle down, you find out that in Spain, the best is yet to come. The 5th of January is magic in the land of Don Quixote. Every mother's child is waiting for the arrival or the Three Wise Men (Los Reyes Magos). They usually bring presents, but, if you were a bad boy or girl, all you'll get is sweet coal (I don't think there's even one child who gets only coal in today's consumerist society, but let's leave it to that). Though Santa Claus conquered the hearts of many Spanish families, the traditional Three Wise Men (Melchor, Gaspar & Baltasar) remain everybody's favorites, as they come by boat or by plane and visit every town in Spain, in a fabulous parade that lasts up to two hours. Well before the night falls, kids of all ages gather on the side of the roads looking forward to meeting the Three Wise Men and catching the thousands of kilos of candies and toys they throw to the public. Free to join!
Last two photos via Flickr Creative Commons (by agirregabiria & Zaragoza Turismo). All the other photos were taken by me