In GRANADA and JAEN there is a tradition not common elsewhere called HOGUERAS (bonfires), and is a custom which began prior to the arrival of Christianity and is the observance of the Winter Solstice. Wood fires are built and people jump over them in the belief that they will be protected against illness.
At the heart of the SPANISH CHRISTMAS is the elaborate nativity scene (NACIMIENTO) or BELEN, and sometimes called the PRESIPIO. You will find them in nearly every home as well as churches and in many public places. They are objects of pride and handed down over the generations. On NOCHE BUENA (The GOOD NIGHT or CHRISTMAS EVE), church bells ring out calling everyone to MISA DE GALLO (Mass of the Rooster).
After mass people return to their homes for an elaborate feast, in some areas it often features pavo (turkey), usually stuffed with truffles, prawns, cooked meats and lots of delicacies, and of course turron (nougat) in many forms. Sweets and pastries made from almonds are very popular at CHRISTMAS and the shops are full of marzipan varieties, mantecados, turron, piononos and Hojaldres.
Following the meal the families usually gather around the Christmas tree to sing VILLANCIOS, famous Spanish carols and the festivities can last until dawn. An old Spanish proverb says "Esta noche es noche Buena, y no es noche de dormir" (This is the Good Night, therefore it is not meant for sleep).
CHRISTMAS DAY sees more festivities eating either leftovers or another feast, some families will attend church again. One of the customs peculiar to SPAIN is that of swinging, swings are set up throughout the courtyard and young people swing to the accompaniment of songs and laughter.
Many families have adopted the American SANTA CLAUS or PAPA NOEL as the bringer of gifts on CHRISTMAS EVE, but most continue the wait until January 6th for the traditional visit of the LOS REYES (THE THREE KINGS). On the eve of EPHIPHANY, JANUARY 5th, the children fill their shoes with grass, hay or grain for the Kings camels and place them on the doorstep.
During the night the THREE KINGS, Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, leave gifts in and around the shoes, by sheer coincidence the shops stay open until past midnight. Throughout the morning of JANUARY 6th children search through the house finding more presents in secret hiding places and the day is heralded with parades in various cities where candy and cakes are distributed to the thousands of children lining the streets. Higuera de la Sierra, a small village in the Province of HUELVA celebrates the oldest procession or "Cabalgate de Reyes Magos" of the Three Wise Men, but not the only one. This Christmas tradition is also kept in Sanlucar de Barrameda in CADIZ and Lucena in CORDOBA.
In some towns the MAGI arrive in a boat from across the sea, whilst in others they come by helicopter, on horses or on a parade of floats. They visit hospitals and orphanages as they pass through SPAIN on their way to BETHLEHEM and the SPANISH children have a great fondness for Balthazar as it is said he gives the best gifts!
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