WOW. I have just returned to Boston from five of the most action-packed days in Spain imaginable, thanks to the free teacher training tour run by EF Tours. And… WOW.
The unquestionable highlight of the tour was celebrating New Year’s Eve 2011 in Puerta del Sol, Madrid!
Puerta del Sol is the very center of Spain (if you type “Madrid” into Google maps, the marker will appear right at Sol), and all points in Spain outside of it are measured by how far away they are from Sol: the “Sun.”
Sol is also the insane Times Square equivalent of most amazing place to ring in 2012!
Now, normally I am kind of freaked out by massive, thousands-and-thousands-of-people crowds, but “safety in numbers” is a sweet perk of traveling in a group of 30 teachers instead of alone!
And what a wonderful (and surprisingly non-terrifying) time we had with the crowds at Sol!
Here are some fascinating cultural differences we noticed about New Year’s in Spain which contrast, big-time with New Year’s festivities in America.
Difference 1: Our group of 30 teachers showed up at the very center of Sol at 11pm on December 31, 2011… and were able to walk right up to the most primo location in the square, right below the famous clock that is the equivalent of the Times Square “Ball Drop” to mark the New Year!
Now, let’s be real, here: in New York City, you cannot even get NEAR Times Square after 11am on December 31!
Why this lack of crowds until the last minute?? Our guide explained it like so: “Well, in Spain you are having such a nice time celebrating with family and friends, and you keep saying “Let’s head over to Sol!” but it gets later and later before you do!”
Anyway, this cultural quirk worked just fine for us. What a delight to be right in the center of it all!
Difference 2: In Spain the awesome new trend is to celebrate New Year’s wearing crazy-colored wigs! Ahh, THAT explains the many wig stores we saw popping up around town, like in the third photo down of this Madrid article.
As goofy as this trend may seem, it looks BEAUTIFUL when combined with the festive holiday lights of the historic Madrid streets! The best wigs were the popular rainbow mohawk ones, but the bright magenta curls made me grin, too. :)
I was mystified by this, but it all became clear when our EF tour guide handed us all baggies of 12 grapes (so organized of him!) and explained: “In Spain you need swallow 12 grapes in the last 12 seconds of the year if you want good luck for the New Year!” (He explained this tradition may have been fabricated by the Fruit-Growers Lobby in a year when there was an unsold surplus of grapes!)
We gulped in nervous anticipation and spent hours debating whether this would be possible without choking.
I am happy to report that, for the most part, we all scarfed our little green fruits by the toll of the last bell of 2011. A lucky 2012 for us! Woo hoo!
Difference 4: When a fellow teacher asked a Spanish policeman if there were any Port-a-Potties or bathrooms around, he replied: “There are two cars parked close together down this street. Squat down there.” (!!!) (Note: There is no photograph to document this difference. Sorry.)
Difference 5: As with many non-American cultures, Spain celebrates in a strikingly intergenerational way. Puerta del Sol was packed with revelers of all ages, from 3 years old to 90!
Difference 6: It was astounding how calm and respectful the giant crowds in Madrid were, despite the excitement and revelry. Not only was it easy to walk into Sol, it took us only about twenty minutes to walk out! Sure, it was slow-going and we had to form a conga line to inch toward the Metro, meter by meter, but we witnessed no fights, no dangerous behavior, and even no shoving!
Now, that said, the way celebration happens in Spain is that they get started around midnight and really begin the madness at about five or six in the morning (as evidenced by the noise outside our hotel room), so I can make no promises about the calm and safety in Spain after 1am, but the whole thousands-of-people exodus out of Sol after midnight was beautifully respectful!
So those are the fascinating differences we noticed during our wonderful New Year’s celebration in Puerta del Sol in Madrid!
Readers, I’m curious to hear what other New Year’s differences YOU have noticed in celebrations for different cultures. Do use the Comments section to share, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 3.7 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!