Christmas is a time of traditions in Galicia. Many of them are linked to customs that are also repeated in the rest of Spain and many other countries. Some are particular variations adapted to the local idiosyncrasy. And there are also singular and unique manifestations. Below we show you some of these traditions that are deeply rooted in the Galician Christmas.
In the dispute between Father Christmas and the Three Wise Men for the Christmas throne, a third contender is fighting in Galicia for the favour of the youngest members of the house. The Apalpador is a traditional figure in the interior of the community, especially in the mountain areas, which has been recovered in recent years and extended to many other Galician towns. According to tradition he is a charcoal maker who visits the houses during the Christmas season, feels the children’s bellies while they are sleeping to see if they are well fed and leaves them a handful of chestnuts as a present. Field research carried out by researchers such as José André Lôpes has made it possible to follow the trail of this tradition through the mountains of Os Ancares and O Courel and to identify the similarities and differences between the Apalpador, also known in some places as Pandigueiro, and other Christmas characters, such as the Basque Olentzero, the Catalan Tió or the Cantabrian Esteru.
The Nativity Scenes
The tradition of recreating the birth of Jesus Christ with figures is present throughout Galicia, both in homes and in places of worship and many other public and private places, and sometimes it also comes to life in the form of stagings in which children, young people and adults play the main characters of this biblical episode. But if there are two places where the tradition of nativity scenes reaches its maximum splendour, it is in the municipalities of Valga and Begonte, whose stagings have been considered celebrations of tourist interest. The Handmade Nativity Scene in Movemento de Valga was born 25 years ago and stands out for the elaborated network that gives life to part of its more than 4,000 figures, among which there is always room for the most outstanding characters of today. Even more veteran is the Electronic Nativity Scene of Begonte, which started in 1972 and combines typical Christmas scenes with representations of the rural world of the Terra Chá region. In both cases, the people who visit them every year are counted in tens of thousands.
The capon and the cod with cauliflower
Although seafood, in its numerous and tasty varieties, has emerged as one of the star dishes on Christmas menus, the tradition is still present in many homes through other ingredients and preparations. This is the case with capon, whose most famous exponent is that of Vilalba, where a monographic fair is dedicated to it, marking the beginning of Christmas and whose fame extends throughout Galicia and beyond the borders of the community. Another traditional dish is the cod with cauliflower, a recipe whose popularity some scholars relate to the vigil that was in force for a long time on Christmas Eve and which prevented people from eating meat. The characteristics of its two main ingredients contributed to the fact that it was a star dish on Christmas Eve, since cauliflower was a common vegetable in Galician kitchen garden and cod has traditionally been a cheap and easy to preserve fish.
The panxoliñas are the main musical compositions of the Galician Christmas. Although usually identified with carols, some researchers have highlighted that there are differences. While carols are musical compositions used in the liturgy in churches and do not necessarily have to be about Christmas motifs, panxoliñas always have that theme and are popular songs that neighbours and families sing in front of the Nativity scene and during Christmas celebrations. Within the panxoliñas, different sub-genres can be distinguished: the panxoliñas themselves, which are those that refer to visits to the Nativity scene; the “nadais”, which are sung on 25th December; the New Year’s songs, the aguinaldos and the Wise Men songs.
Christmas Log and Lume Novo
In some places in Galicia they preserve a tradition that is also present in other areas of Europe and that is linked to ancient rites related to the winter solstice. This is the Christmas log, a practice related to the idea of the transition from the old to the new and which consisted of lighting a wooden log that had to remain lit for a certain time. This was explained by authors such as Vicente Risco, who also pointed out that the resulting ashes were used as fertilizer, and there are those who point out that this same material was used to cure fevers. In some places, the ember was kept alive until the New Year, in others it was lit briefly during each day as a symbol of protection for the home, and in a few places it was kept to be lit again during stormy days. This practice would also be linked to another traditional event of these dates in Galicia, that of the Lume Novo (New Fire), which consisted precisely of lighting a fire after the New Year’s Eve dinner that served to guide the souls of the deceased. This fire was to be fed throughout the night so that the kitchens could be lit with it on New Year’s Day.
Nights of jokes and rites
The 28th December, the feast of the Holy Innocents, is a date traditionally associated with jokes throughout Spain and a large part of Latin America, but in some areas of Galicia there are other Christmas days that are also suitable for the jokes. In some places these were held at the end of the Midnight Mass, the religious service that takes place on the 24th December before midnight, while in other parts of the community the jokes were held on the 26th, St. Stephen’s Day. In addition, there was also time in these evenings to think about the future through other rites that were aimed to find out what the next crops would be like and to encourage the production of the fruit trees by the expeditious method of stoning them.