As our calendars changed to December, a veil of festive lights, giant Christmas trees, and other merry accoutrements descended over San Sebastián. The holidays have begun, adding jovial flair to streets and scenting up corners with roasted chestnut aromas. But around these parts, standard Spanish holiday traditions are injected with inimitable Basque flavor. We consulted our Mimo San Sebastian team of experts to give you a glimpse of what this season is like here in our corner of the world.
Christmas décor and markets
There’s a twinkle about Donostia these days, as streets and bridges are illuminated with holiday lights and carols are pumped through speakers. There’s even a giant Ferris wheel by La Concha beach, and it’s well worth a spin for the views alone. Shops around the city deck out their window displays in merry fashion, vying to win the annual competition. An elaborate nativity scene has taken over the Plaza Gipuzkoa, while the Buen Pastor Cathedral is surrounded by wooden huts selling all sorts of artisan treats like toys, jewelry, Christmas ornaments, chocolate, and more. You’ll find a Christmas market along the Paseo del Urumea as well, and the river itself is dressed up for the occasion, with a cubical light display making pretty reflections across the water and the Maria Cristina Bridge bedecked in lights.
The 21st of December – Saint Thomas’s Day —is a step into yesteryear, with country markets and farmers selling their wares. Everyone dons traditional Basque outfits and performs traditional dances. ‘Tis a day for eating txistorra and drinking cider, all to the soundtrack of traditional Basque music. There are fun things happening around town, like a scarecrow contest and animal exhibitions. These traditions go back to the time when farmers would come into the city annually to pay their landlords, taking the opportunity to sell some of their products along the way. If you want to see the city’s Basque side, this is a great day to be here, and it’s the perfect time to buy local products like Idiazabal cheese, honey, and handmade crafts.
Kids wait all year for Olentzero, the Basque version of Santa, to come down from the mountains where he lives and hand out gifts, as he does every Christmas Eve. This mythical man is a bit of a mystery – some say he’s a farmer, others claim he’s a shepherd or coal miner. He’s a kind, jolly man who loves food and wine, dressed simply in farmer’s garb, with a Basque beret topping his head and a pipe in his mouth. He arrives in the city in grand fashion, along with his wife Mari Domingui, on Christmas Eve, parading through the streets and showering spectators with candy. Like Santa, he sneaks into homes at night to deliver gifts, and he’s even known to give coal (a piece of black sugar or a lump of sweet coal that you can buy in the bakery)to bad kids.
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Like elsewhere in the world, Christmas is family time and it’s celebrated with plenty of feasting. Families gather for a large dinner on Christmas Eve, while Christmas day is celebrated with a grand lunch. The menu varies – special Christmas soups, typical tapas like croquetas, shrimp, and jamón, and entrees like roasted lamb, sirloin steak, or cod. As for dessert, turrón is omnipresent, and not just here, but all across Spain. Come December, you’ll see supermarket shelves and pastelerías start filling up with the stuff. This almond nougat is standard holiday fare, and you’ll find it in many different flavors and in two varieties – soft and chewy (turrón de Jijona) and hard and brittle (turrón de Alicante). Another sweet treat you’ll see a lot of is marzipan (mazapanes) formed into all kinds of little shapes.
Angulas are a specialty around this time, though you won’t see this prized ingredient on every Christmas table. Elvers, or baby eels, are a delicacy in the Basque Country, and one of Spain’s most expensive foods (due to overfishing and high demand), priced at up to €1,000 per kilo in restaurants. They’re a curious food, as they don’t really taste of much (thus usually sautéed with olive oil and garlic, or other flavorful additions), but it’s all about the texture here. You might see something like them in supermarkets and in pintxo bars around town, but note that these are gulas, a much cheaper imitation made from processed fish.
New Year’s Eve
Like everywhere else across Spain, midnight on Nochevieja signals an annual grape-eating tradition. Many people gather in main spots around town – places like Plaza Gipuzkoa are packed for the occasion. As the clock strikes midnight, the 12 grapes are eaten – one for every bell chime – symbolizing good luck in the new year.
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Some people – including locals — opt to attend one of the galas, cotillones, taking place in several hotels across the city, such as the Maria Cristina Hotel. These galas include dinner, drinks, and plenty of dancing. For an alternative, go bar hopping in the Parte Vieja.