A Guide to Spanish Customs (Part 1)

In Spanish they would call these curiosidades, that is, curious facts about something.

Like any place in the world, what is totally normal to one nation could seem peculiar to another. As an Englishwoman in Spain, it provided endless fascination to discover more and more curiosidades along the way. When I moved to Córdoba, I knew I was going to have to quickly adapt, battle with the language and learn how to cope in the heat. What I didn’t anticipate though was that I was going to have to learn all the little ways that actually make a big difference to day-to-day things such as going shopping or eating out.

Here, I’ll tell you about 12 of these along with some explanation as to how they came about! If you know of any more or want to find out more about the following, please feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this post.

1. The tooth fairy does not bring a coin in exchange for a fallen tooth, in Spain it is a mouse

El Ratoncito Pérez (Pérez the little mouse) is the figure who takes away children’s fallen teeth and leaves behind a coin in exchange, all over Spain and Latin America. He originated in Madrid in 1894 by a Royal Counsellor named Friar Luis Coloma.

He was commissioned by the royal family to write a story for the 8 year old Alfonso XIII when he lost a tooth, so Coloma conjured up a story about a little mouse who collects teeth and takes them back to the little biscuit box where he lived with his family.

In Madrid, there is actually a small museum dedicated to this fairy tale called Casita Museo de Ratón Pérez’ which is obviously, a child-friendly thing to do whilst there.

France also has its own version of the tooth collecting mouse, called La Bonne Petite Souris.

Click here to watch a brief animation in English of this story!

Pic credit: Fotolia/Adobe

2. Birthdays- who pays for the party?

The birthday girl/boy does! A bit like how here in Britain, people will bring cakes and biscuits into work when it’s their birthday, in Spain, the person with the birthday will take their friends out for food and/or drink.

I attended post-work coffee and cake at one of the numerous Roldán panaderías (bakeries), a ronda of cocktails (round) and dinners at people’s homes whenever it was their birthday.

A benefit to this tradition is that when it’s your birthday and therefore your turn to pay, you get to choose the restaurant or bar you go to without having to ask for it and feeling cheeky.

Amaltea restaurant in Córdoba, where I chose to have my 29th birthday
Pairi Daeza where I chose to go on my 30th birthday

3. Roscón de Reyes (Spanish Christmas Cake)

In Britain, our Christmas cake is made of dried fruit, spices, marzipan and royal icing. I love it. In Spain, their cake is very different: it is a large ring (called a roscón) of choux pastry, filled fresh cream, dusted with icing sugar and topped with candied fruit.

It is consumed on the 6th January which is Spanish Christmas, or literally the ‘Day of the Kings’.

Tradition goes that if you find a little silver token in your piece of roscón de reyes, you have to pay for the whole thing.


4. NYE: Grapes at Midnight

Upon the twelve bells of midnight bringing in each new year, Spaniards will eat a grape on every strike. One grape for each month of the year to come for good luck. The first time I tried this, I was presented with seeded grapes and only managed 6. I still don’t know why they consider grapes to be lucky but one day I’ll try it with seedless grapes and see if I manage all 12!

In Córdoba where I lived, thousands of people would gather in La Plaza de las Tendillas to carry out this ritual en masse. One year, my mum and dad did this from home in Liverpool and tbh I’ll probably try it now I’m back in the UK too.

5. Beléns (nativity scenes) over Christmas tress and the caganera

I noticed quite early on in my first Spanish advent season that there was a saddening lack of Christmas trees about. I was searching for any kind of reminder of home in these first few tough months and only El Corte Inglés provided it.

What I did see in Spanish people’s homes and other institutes though was the popularity of the nativity scene. Córdoba even has a municipal Belén in the town hall for public viewings. The local bargain shops (a bit like the £1 shops we have in the UK) sell individual figurines and families collect them over the years building up every conceivable character beyond Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the shepherds.

One character I never understood (and still don’t) is the caganera which can only be translated as ‘the shitter’- a little boy mid-business. What is the relevance of this to the nativity? No bloody idea. Every house had one though!

6. Él Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents- December Fool’s Day)

Spanish people have an April Fool’s Day only it is in December. It has a more pleasant name: the day of the innocents.

Pranks take place on December 28th every year just like they do on April 1st in the UK and many other English-speaking countries.

7. Throwing rice over the bride and groom

I attended my first Spanish wedding in Cádiz and upon exiting the church, I was surprised when I was approached by a bridesmaid carrying a basket of organza bags filled with rice.

What’s this for? I asked.

Rice is basically Spanish confetti.

The bride and groom left the church to applause and camera flashlights while a shower of rice rained down on them. The rice gets everywhere, it ended up in my own hair and dress and I was still finding it the day after.

Again, I have no idea why they throw rice but it was still fun to take part in.

Cádiz, where I attended my first ever Spanish wedding
Another Spanish wedding I attended at Castillo de Almódovar, Córdoba (a Game of Thrones location)

8. You cannot eat without a servilleta

Maybe it’s because of all the olive oil served with everything.

Every bar, tapas bar or restaurant you’ll ever eat at in Spain will have a servillette holder usually saying ‘gracias por su visita’ (which a local lad showed me if you fold in a certain way, you end up with ‘gracias puta‘…). Over time, you become accustomed to grabbing a load of these to accompany your meal.

Even in homes, hosts will serve you tapas with servilletas, guaranteed.

I’ve been living back in the UK for exactly 1 year today and still find this habit ingrained in me; I can’t eat a meal now without a few servillettes on the side. A weird quirk but a useful one at that.

Spanish people are incredibly house proud and immaculately clean however they often throw their used servilletas on the floor of the tapas bar where you will end up eating and drinking in the middle of a mass of them accumulating since the morning’s tostadas.

So prevalent are the servilletas, Córdoba’s annual poetry festival ‘Cosmopoética’ prints poetry on many of the city’s servilletas every October to engage everyone in the art of the written verse.

Salmorejo, vino tino y servilletas at La Cuarta, Córdoba

9. Have your bag unzipped and 100% guaranteed an older woman will chastise you for it

I have long been known for throwing my handbags all over the place whilst on a night out but it just didn’t wash whilst in Spain.

I would meet friends for a post-work cerveza and put my bag on the floor, usually unzipped. I didn’t have much money to steal anyway and my phone would usually be in my pocket so I wasn’t every particularly worried about my bag.

Every time I would mindlessly do this, WITHOUT DOUBT, an older woman would march over, tap me on the shoulder and say “hija, tu bolso está abierto!” (Daughter, your bag is open!). Robbery is massive in Spain and it is ingrained in the people to be as careful as possible and rightfully so. The bars that lock in almost all ground floor windows look unsightly but are there to prevent break-ins.

There is even an expression that says the British are paranoid about house fires and the Spanish are paranoid about house break-ins. (The Spanish have less cause to worry about house fires due to the absence of carpets.)

Without exaggeration, I cannot tell you how many times a woman has chased me down the street to tell me to zip up my bag and I did try to learn and make sure it was done but I’m quite a ‘caution-to-the-wind’ type of person and would still often forget.

10. A bag on the floor brings bad luck and you will be told off for it

… it is also considered bad luck to put a handbag on the floor as apparently it invites bad financial luck and exposes you to even more chance of robbery.

Many bars in Spain have hooks under bars and tables for you to hang your bag on and I had a friend who bought herself a magnetic portable one to avoid this problem wherever she was. Admittedly, since living back in the UK, I find myself scanning the undersides of bars and tables to see if they have these convenient hooks for my handbag but they are very scarcely found here!

11. Bread or dry breadsticks with EVERYTHING

I noticed this after only a few days in Spain. You sit down at a restaurant table and the waiter will bring over a basket filled with bread and breadsticks before you’ve even stated what you want to eat.

You’ll invariably find a 1 euro charge for this on your bill at the end too.

It is excellent for salmorejo but sometimes it ends up wasted.

Bread is of course a staple part of the western world’s diet but in Spain it is taken to the next level. Dry cracker bread is peculiarly popular here too, presumably because it is a low fat way of enjoying bread.

There’s bread somewhere in this pic or just out of view…. La Cavea, Córdoba

12. You don’t say “hola” when you answer the phone. You don’t ask “could I” or “can I” and you only say “please” when you’re asking for something you really want

The usual way to answer the phone can be either:

  • “Si?”
  • “Dígame?”- (tell me/ speak to me)
  • “Diga”- (speak)

This blunt manner of answering a call before breaking into a friendly and emphatic conversation sounds so strange to an English speaker but it’s the way they do it and think nothing of it.

As for ‘please’, I had to really re-train my Britishness by holding off on ‘por favor’ because where we say it for everything, multiple times, the Spanish don’t tend to say it. When they do, it’s for something sincerely wanted and with a slight pleading tone to it. For example, if I buy a ticket for a bus or train here in Liverpool, I’ll say “can I have a return to the centre please?” whereas when I’d board the bus in Córdoba, it would have sounded ludicrous for me to ask for a single journey to wherever, por favor.

Every bone in my polite British body screamed ‘por favor’ every time but I had to learn to simply place down my set 1 euros 30 cents for any given journey with nothing uttered other than a simple ‘gracias’ when the driver passed me the ticket.

Likewise in shops, bars and restaurants when you order something, you hold off on the ‘por favor’. It feels so weird to day “quiero” (I want) in place of “can/could I have… please?” but to them it’s not rude in the slightest!

13. Ultra-strong, unmeasured spirits

In the UK we will ask for a single or a double. In Spain, you ask for what drink you want: ginebra, ron, whiskey, etc… and the bar tender will pour a random amount into your glass with no notion of measurement. They’ll usually pour it up to 3/4 of the way up your glass then add a dash of mixer.

It explains why so many nights in Spain end in a surprisingly drunken state when you think to yourself “but I only had 3 drinks!” because it may as well be 6.

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14. Free food

Most bars or tapas bars will bring over a dish of free food just for the very fact you’ve sat down and ordered a drink (even if it’s tap water or a soft drink!). These are usually either olives, crisps or nuts or sometimes, more generous bars will give little pinchos of bread with jamón and cheese, for example.

Granada is famous for this- you can eat for free if you order a couple of drinks and fill up on whatever pinchos or tapas they bring out. It can be hit and miss but it’s free and a missed trick in other countries. If there was a bar in Liverpool which provided a free dish of olives with every drink, I think there would be a significant boost in custom.

Free olives at a tetería

15. Taking a ticket instead of queuing

In my early days of bureaucratic paperwork to acquire a residency permit and bank account etc, I quickly learnt that one doesn’t enter a bank, post office, or any kind of council building and stand in a queue. You go to a self service computer which resembles an ATM which prints you a ticket while a red LED screen announces the order.

It’s quite nice actually as you can take a seat and there can’t be any queue jumping as you have to present your ticket.


Part 2 to come!


One thought on “A Guide to Spanish Customs (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: A Guide to Spanish Customs (Part 2) – Laura Ferries Writer

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