New Years traditions in Spain, such as eating twelve grapes at midnight or wearing red underwear, are meant to assure you luck and prosperity during the new year.
It's hard to believe that by now I have celebrated over 15 New Years Eve's here in Spain!
While celebrating the new year shares many similarities to New Year's Eve in the United States and other parts of the world, there are some quirky traditions that sets Spain apart. The most important of which has to do with eating twelve grapes during what most people think are the last twelve seconds of the old year.
But are they!?!?
I was just as shocked, and a little bit disappointed, as many a Spaniard to find out last year that the twelve campanadas (dings of the bell) that accompany the eating of grapes don't actually occur until after the new year has already begun, so you don't actually end up wishing anybody a Happy New Year until almost a minute after you've entered into it! It's a bit anti-climatic once you realize it, but the 12 campanadas that ring in the new year begin exactly at 12, and one sounds approximately every 3 seconds giving you just enough time to eat one grape with each of them!
The eating of the twelve grapes supposedly symbolizes the twelve months of the year, and if you don't finish them by the twelfth campanada, it is said that you won't have a lucky new year. While the grapes that are reserved for bringing in the new year are usually small, green ones, it hasn't been common to find seedless grapes in Spain until just recently (And even now, I only see them just for this occasion). That's why most people spend the last minutes of the old year preparing their grapes by removing the seeds, counting and recounting to make sure they have all 12, and some even peel theirs. (Peeling almost all fruits from apples and peaches to even grapes is quite common here.)
If you don't want to bother with all of that, you could always buy some gross canned syrupy peeled and deseeded grapes perfectly prepped for your celebration.
Eating the twelve grapes during the sounding of the bells may not be as lucky as one would think, though. There is at least one known case of a woman who died after choking on hers! So, if you plan on following the tradition, at least be careful! 😉
If the grapes aren't enough to bring you good luck, you should head to your party with red underwear of some sort. If somebody has given you said red underwear as a gift, even luckier! I used to receive red underwear each year for Christmas from my in-laws until, perhaps, they reconsidered the notion as being a bit strange of a gift. (Are they too sexy? Too grandma-ish? hmmm) That said, it isn't unusual to find red panties and briefs rolled into clear plastic ornaments or nice velvet pouches, ready for Christmas gift-giving.
Just as you can watch the celebration in Times Square in the US, in Spain you can watch the ball fall at midnight at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. It is televised, and most of the time does a pretty good job of explaining their complex bell system announcing the new year, but they have been known to make televised mistakes. As the year ends, you are warned about the coming of the twelve campanadas by 4 dings of the bell known as the “cuartos” or fourths. There have been instances where the announcers have become confused and either have people eat their grapes too early, thinking the caurtos are the campanadas, or not hearing the cuartos, and thinking that the campanadas were them, having people eat their grapes 4 bells too late! (I wonder how many people were actually unlucky those years?) Last year a Southern channel got a lot of grief after accidentally cutting out to a commercial during the cuartos and first 9 bells, much to the bewilderment of those watching and waiting. 😛
Apart from the green grapes and red underwear, the new year is usually brought in with a sip of cava (Spanish sparkling wine) or sidra (hard cider). Most places will give you a “bolsa de cotillón” for fun, a bag filled with masks, noisemakers, leis, and paper streamers or confetti. If you choose to stay in for the night, though, you can buy yourself one at any of your local supermarkets!
Restaurants here usually have a special set menu for nochevieja (New Year's Eve), with a set price that may or may not include open bar and/or entertainment. Several years ago it wasn't uncommon for even mediocre restaurants to charge somewhere between 100 Euros to 200 Euros per person for that special menu, but with the economic crisis the prices for the New Year's Eve dinner has fallen dramatically. Many of the same restaurants that used to charge the upwards of 100 Euros, now charge less than 50.
If you prefer to save your money and don't mind hanging out outside in the cold, most cities set up a celebration of their own in one of the town squares (usually one with a large plaza, a church, and a bell). For those who want to bring in the new year with lots of friendly company around them, it's a great option. Don't be surprised, though, if strangers wish you a Feliz Año Nuevo, and maybe even exchange kisses with you, as is customary here.
If you want the feel of the New Year, but aren't here in Spain quite so late in the year, you can get a feeling for it at the special university new year celebration in early December. What started in 1999 as a few students from the Universidad de Salamanca getting together to celebrate together when their classes ended for the year, has now become a tradition that draws in thousands and thousands of young people each year. Spain knows how to make a huge fiesta out of just about anything, and they do it well.
Rather than bringing in the “Nochevieja Universitaria” with twelve grapes, you can find special bags of 12 grape flavored “gominolas” (gummy candy). It has become well organized with special transportation and lodging packages available for those who want to join in on the fun.
Well, I hope you enjoyed learning a little more about how New Year's Eve is celebrated in Spain, and reading about some of the popular traditions here.
No matter where you are celebrating or how you are doing it, I wish you a very Happy New Year!