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Celebrating the New Year in the Times Square of Spain!

How Do You Say “Happy New Year” in Spanish?

Before we start this article about celebrating the New Year in Spain, let’s get an important thing straight. The answer to the question, “How do you say ‘Happy New Years’ in Spanish?” is: “Feliz año nuevo.” It is VERY important to have the squiggly line (tilde) above the “n” in “año,” because if you forget it, the word becomes… an awkward part of the human body, and not what you mean at all. Clear? Ok, on to the travel story.

Thousands celebrate the New Year at Madrid's Puerta del Sol, the "Times Square of Spain!"
Thousands celebrate the New Year at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, the “Times Square of Spain!”

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.”

Thrilled to be celebrating in Spain with great teachers!
Thrilled to be celebrating in Spain with great teachers!

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.

The famous clocktower of Sol that's the "Ball Drop" equivalent!
The famous clocktower of Sol that rings in the New Year!

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!”

Demonstrating the wig-wearing tradition of Spanish New Year!
Demonstrating the wig-wearing tradition of Spanish New Year!

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. :)

We ate all 12 grapes for a lucky 2012!
We ate all 12 grapes for a lucky 2012! Burp!

Difference 3: When I broadcast on Twitter and Facebook that I was headed to Spain for New Year’s, tons of people responded, “Don’t forget to eat the grapes!”

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.)

Love the lights and the excitement of being in the heart of Sol!
Love the lights and the excitement of being in the heart of Sol!

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!

The crowds walking (respectfully!) out of Sol and to the Metro.
The crowds walking (respectfully!) out of Sol and to the Metro.

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!

Want to read about the New Year’s I spent homeless in Aruba? Click here!


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Steve Easley

Monday 30th of December 2013

With New Year's Eve coming up I was already thinking about NYE in Madrid. Seeing your link on fb made me want to check and see if you had written anything about our EF trip, and who knew I would find my smiling face on your website :) Happy New Year! (although if yours is going to be like mine it will be much less eventful than the one 2 years ago)


Tuesday 31st of December 2013

Ah yes, you're famous! :D That was such a fun New Years. Since we have a 5 week old baby now, we're spending this New Years at home with friends, but will try to bring some of the Spain spirit into our festivities. Best to you and yours!

Adam Pervez

Wednesday 2nd of January 2013

Used to live a short distance from Sol. Never experienced NYE there though. In 2008 I went to Paris (which does nothing for NYE) and 2009 I was at home having just graduated. Glad you got to have some grapes in my for mer home though :)

Alessandra A

Tuesday 19th of June 2012

My Cuban grandmother also makes me eat 12 grapes in the last 12 seconds before the new year starts.

Michelle Pinto

Friday 13th of April 2012

Wow! Learning about New Years in the Times Square of Spain sound really fun and interesting. I love learning about how different the traditions they do are from ours! :)


Saturday 18th of February 2012

Was there more people then in New York on New Year's?


Saturday 18th of February 2012

Nope! NYC is so packed you can't get within 30 blocks of Times Square!

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