Malaga Christmas lights shine bright everywhere. Feliz Navidad is on the lips of every resident.
In Malaga, a Mediterranean Christmas celebration is as likely to include a boot stuffed with a toy as stockings jammed full of gifts.
In fact, there may not even be fireplaces to hang those knitted stockings considering the weather in southern Spain is typically 70 degrees F in December.
Malaga is located in the autonomous community of Andalusia.
What is it like to exchange an American Christmas for Malaga Christmas lights in Spain? How hard is it to be apart from your family on December 25? How does Malaga celebrate Christmas?
All these questions—and more—were on my mind when I interviewed Madison Cary, a young American woman teaching English to elementary children in Spain.
Her teaching job was interrupted in March with the pandemic’s onset, but she returned to Spain in the autumn.
Madison is a hard-working editorial associate who also worked her way through college as a lifeguard. But like so many millennials who want to see the world, she decided that teaching abroad would be the perfect job after graduating from college.
Nevertheless, Madison admitted that it will be hard not to spend Christmas with her family back in the United States. “I’m feeling a lot of mixed emotions about being away from home for Christmas. I’ll definitely be missing my family as this is my first Christmas away from home, but having friends and a support system in Spain is helping me stay optimistic about it,” explained Madison.
In fact, she is eager to travel around the south of Spain during her two-week vacation from work. In addition to Malaga Christmas lights, she wants to see other small towns in the region.
So Madison exchanged the National Christmas Tree in Washington D.C. for a traditional Feliz Navidad. Her photos show an ancient port city founded in the 8th century by the Phoenicians transformed by Malaga Christmas lights.
“Malaga celebrates Christmas by filling the city with lights and illuminated decorations, playing Christmas music in the streets, and hosting several different holiday markets,” said Madison.
Moreover, the 24th of December is the big celebration day. “Families normally get together for an elaborate dinner on Christmas Eve and then have a big, but less formal lunch Christmas Day,” said Madison.
Malaga instituted a number of restrictions to protect the city. “Residents cannot travel outside of Malaga city. All non-essential businesses must close at 6 pm. There’s a curfew from 10 pm-7 am. It’s mandatory to wear a mask at all times even when exercising,” said Madison.
While some Christmas events were cancelled due to the pandemic, other activities were simply scaled back in Malaga.
“The markets seem to be up and running for the most part but with occupancy controls. Usually, there is a street party/concert in the city center on the first night that the Christmas lights are turned on (November 27). However, it was canceled this year to avoid attracting large crowds. Nevertheless, the streets were still flooded with people anxious to see the lights the city has been installing since mid-October,” said Madison.
Malaga Christmas lights hang over the kiosks at the markets as well as the large avenues.
But the city did permit a holiday food market in December. “Earlier this month there was a ‘Taste of Malaga’ market in the city center where people could taste and buy locally produced goods, such as cheeses, meats, olive oil, wine, and honey,” explained Madison.
“Food trucks were set up for people to enjoy street-food style meals and beverages while watching various events such as concerts, wine tastings, cooking demonstrations, etc.”
Malaga also permitted the traditional Christmas market to be set up by the port. A tradition across Europe, these open-air markets feature artisans who sell handmade jewelry, clothes, pottery and Christmas items.
“Malaga stages a Christmas Market by the port that has homemade goods for sale along with sweets and mulled wine. The market is small, but lovely,” said Madison.
“On the main avenue, there is another holiday market that has carnival-like foods (think cotton candy, churros, and loaded waffles), toys, and other merchandise,” she added.
Now if you have grown up in a climate where it is typically cold at Christmas, it might seem strange to dress in jeans and a t-shirt.
“The warm weather is definitely throwing me off a bit,” jokes Madison. “Sometimes I forget that it’s almost Christmas but then I’m pulled back into the holiday spirit when I walk out onto the illuminated streets filled with people and a vibrant ambiance.”
But Madison has made some friends in Malaga who come from places in the southern hemisphere, like Australia and Argentina. “And for them it’s perfectly normal to have a warm Christmas. And besides, Christmas on the beach sounds heavenly,” she reports.
Without a family celebration to attend, how do expats celebrate Christmas Day? “In general, we either travel, get together with other expats, or spend the holiday with Spanish people,” said Madison. “I think some people like to fully immerse themselves in the Spanish holiday experience, while others try to maintain and share their own traditions.”
Madison said that she’ll be aiming for a mix of all three—some travel, some U.S. traditions, and some Spanish traditions.
Three Kings Day
Before Madison returns to teach in mid January, she must celebrate “Dia de Los Reyes Magos” (Three Kings Day.) This holiday (Feast of the Epiphany) commemorates the three wise men who came to see Baby Jesus in Bethlehem. The Magi (Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar) present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child.
This tradition of giving gifts continues in modern day Spain with Three Kings Day. Children leave out their shoes on January 5 in anticipation of gifts from their parents.
January 6 is also a bank holiday, so Three Kings events are held all over Spain. “Many places have parades on January 6 to celebrate ‘Día de Los Reyes Magos’ or The Three Kings’ Day, but I imagine most cities will cancel this event,” said Madison.
In fact, Three Kings Day in Spain is almost just as big of a celebration as Christmas, if not bigger. School does not return until the 7th (or even later in some regions) as the 6th is a very important day. Pre-pandemic there were usually big parades where the ‘three kings’ tossed candy to the crowds from their floats. This year it’ll be interesting to see if some cities decide to have the parade.
“Depending on the family, some give presents on both Christmas and The Three Kings’ Day while others only give presents on the later. Typically only those who believe in ‘Papa Noel’ or Santa Claus, so mainly young children, receive presents on both holidays. Children set their shoes out the night before and the Three Kings put their presents on top of the shoes,” said Madison.
Families always eat a “roscón” cake together, which is another holiday tradition. “This cake has two figures hidden inside: a small king figurine and a black bean (‘la haba’). The person who gets the slice with la haba has to buy the cake the following year, while the lucky person who finds the king is deemed ‘the king of the day’ and gets to wear the crown that comes in the packaging,” said Madison.
Clearly, Madison will be Reina for the Day on January 6, because she undoubtedly will find a crown in her slice of the cake. Plus, she is quite lucky to be pursuing her dream of traveling in Europe while improving her Spanish. In fact, she loves Malaga so much that she may come back to teach for another year.
For readers interested in pursuing a teaching opportunity abroad, there are numerous opportunities to explore.
“My program is called North American Language and Culture Assistants in Spain. It is organized through the Spanish government. My job title is ‘Auxiliar de Conversación’ and my responsibilities are to help children learn English through conversation, cultural presentations, games, and other activities. Sometimes I work more as a support teacher in the classroom, while other times I get to lead the class. Teaching children a foreign language involves being very patient while keeping the activities as dynamic and engaging as possible,” said Madison.
According to the NALCA website, over 35,000 Americans and Canadians have participated in the program. Madison is a cultural ambassador. This is the experience of a lifetime!
(NOTE: Madison photographed all the pictures in this article.)
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