Traditions: Christmas Lunch/Dinner in Spain
Ahh, it’s that time of year when the streets are filled with Christmas market stands, people are roasting chestnuts on an open fire, there’s overall holiday cheer... and also an instant inability to get a reservation at a restaurant! What is it with Spaniards eating out in December!? Well, don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to find a table at your favorite restaurant over the next few weeks; Spain’s tradition of celebrating the holidays by going out in a huge group with friends and/or colleagues will be taking over!
The first time I was in Spain during the Christmas season I didn’t quite grasp the importance of this tradition. An American friend of mine had wanted to make Christmas plans, his Spanish roommates suggested a Christmas lunch—I honestly thought it was a little weird to plan two weeks before Christmas but I didn’t protest—and so we made a reservation for a group of seven of us and enjoyed a lovely little lunch together. I thought it was something our group simply chose to do that year but I’ve since come to understand that this is a general hallmark of the Christmas season in Spain!
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules (such as my own example), but typically Christmas lunches are a tradition for work colleagues. This sort of outing—similar to the Christmas party many of us may be used to back home—is generally offered to the entire office or staff and people are expected to RSVP (something that’s not so common in Spain but is necessary in order to reserve a table and the right amount of dishes). In some cases, this is paid for by the management but a more common practice is for employees to pay for (at least part of) their meal.
It is most common for friends to organize to go out for Christmas dinner and this is typically not only a dinner but a full-out party night too! Don’t be surprised if you’ve already been added to a new Whatsapp group to organize this event. Especially if they’ve had difficulties getting everyone together in the past, many friend groups will start looking into dates and options in November! At least in my experience, it’s common for this kind of group to go back and forth for a week or two debating the best date, time, and location before someone finally settles it and makes a reservation, ideally well in advance in order to avoid having to revert to Plan B or C in terms of restaurant choices. I would absolutely not make any other plans for that evening or the following morning if going out afterwards has been mentioned.
A Few Things to Note
Significance: While many Spaniards (at least the ones I know) are budget-conscious throughout the year, the Christmas lunch/dinner tradition is generally viewed as something that is not to be passed up. I know some people here in Granada who refuse to pay for food eaten out through the year (sticking instead to the free-tapas-only diet) but will somehow manage to attend three or four separate Christmas dinners! My point here is not to allude to hypocrisy but instead to highlight HOW important these meals are in the Spanish psyche. For many, it would be a true disgrace to turn down an invitation to Christmas lunch/dinner—even if it comes down to going out once with their friend group where they currently live, once with their partner’s friends, once with their coworkers, and once with their friends in their hometown!
Cost: However, these lunches and dinners are generally not cheap! I’ve personally only attended two Christmas lunches (one with friends, one with work) and two friends Christmas dinners but in my experience the cost has been between 20-30€. Still, it’s important to note that that’s here in Granada (a very affordable city) as well as mostly outings planned with college students who were on a budget. If you get invited to Christmas lunch or dinner be sure to find out how much you’re talking about ahead of time—I have friends whose Christmas dinners tend to be closer to 60€ and that’s not necessarily including post-dinner drinks! You can get a general idea by checking out this list of some of the restaurants in Granada with Christmas menus.
Menu: As you may have already surmised by the existence of a set price, this tradition is so common that, during December, there is generally a set Christmas meal menu at restaurants and large groups cannot order a-la-carte but need to decide on a specific menu ahead of time (meaning that the entire group will have to order the same set menu). Depending on the restaurant you may have anywhere from two to five different options of varying prices and varying serving styles (i.e. individual courses for each person [individual] or to share [al centro]). In some cases, you may find a restaurant with an additional option that includes entry, a certain amount of drinks, and/or a VIP balcony (palco) at a local nightclub.
Attire: As a general rule, Christmas meals are a time to get dressed up! As you might imagine, the degree of elegance is often related to the time of day—for example, when I went to a work Christmas lunch I was working at a school and so we all went out directly after the school day ended and no one was especially dressed up. However, all of the Christmas dinners I’ve been to with friends (friends I’d regularly see in sweatpants and hoodies) were occasions on which the girls wore dresses and the guys wore dress pants and shirts (and often ties). Seriously, do not be afraid to ask friends or coworkers what they plan to wear because many, though not all, groups go more all-out than I would have anticipated and you don’t want to feel out of place on this special day/night.
I hope this explanation of the Spanish tradition of going out for Christmas lunch or Christmas dinner comes in handy for you. As always, please comment and share you own experiences as my understanding of this ritual is limited to the experience here in Granada and it may certainly be different around the country!