Cultural Differences Between how Spain and the U.S. Celebrate Christmas

Darby Fugitt is a student at Baker University and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently studying abroad with ISA in Malaga, Spain.

I arrived in Spain on January 3rd, which in the U.S. would be considered after the holiday season. Imagine my surprise then when I heard Christmas music in the airport, on the radio and in our hotel! My confusion turned into curiosity as I traveled through Madrid and saw tons of Christmas decorations and felt the familiar holiday buzz in the air. I started asking questions to our ISA director who informed me that, in Spain, Christmas doesn’t end until Three Kings Day on January 6th. I had heard of people in the U.S. keeping their Christmas trees up until January 6th and attending church services for Three Kings Day, but that was the extent of my knowledge on the traditions. Let me tell you, Spain knows how to celebrate!

A building in Madrid decorated for the holidays.

From our resident staff, tour guides, and an incredibly friendly Uber driver that drove us to dinner one night, I have learned quite a bit about the celebrations here. Christmas Eve and Day are relatively similar to how the U.S. celebrates, with music, Santa Claus, and often church services. You can see Beléns– or nativity scenes– all around the country.

The biggest difference that I have found between how America and Spain celebrate the season surrounds the Reyes Magos, or the Three Kings. I had the privilege of being in Madrid on January 5th, which is one of the most exciting evenings for Spanish children. Although Santa Claus brings presents on Christmas, the Reyes Magos bring special gifts on January 6th. Every child self identifies with one of the three kings, writes them a letter explaining why they have been good and deserve presents this year, and gives their letters to the kings during one of many extravagant parades on the 5th. To them, waking up on Three Kings Day is just as exciting as Christmas Day.

This is a view from one of the bustling streets in Madrid preparing for the Reyes Magos.

On the evening of the 5th it was nearly impossible to get to dinner because all of the roads were closed for the parades, children filled the streets, and taxis zipped by with presents strapped to the top of their cars for the children. The city was practically electric with holiday spirit, and I was stuck in pure awe. I had no idea that there was so much more to the holiday season after the new year began.

In Málaga, I asked my host mom what her favorite Christmas tradition is. She said she loves spending time with her family. On New Year’s Eve, her entire family gets together for dinner and she really values that. She also said that she loved Three Kings Day when her children were little. When we arrived to Málaga, she had some Roscón de Reyes left over, which is a traditional sweet bread ring eaten on the 6th. She offered some to my roommate and me and let us share in some Spanish traditions with her.

A huge Christmas tree that was placed in one of the main plazas in Málaga.

Being an American in Spain during the holidays really allowed me to experience just how much someone’s culture can impact the way they experience something so seemingly universal, like Christmas.


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