How Spanish Traditions Work

By: John Perritano

The bullfight, known also as the corrida, is one of Spain's oldest and most colorful traditions.
The bullfight, known also as the corrida, is one of Spain's oldest and most colorful traditions.
Jean du Boisberranger/Getty Images

The crowd rose collectively to its feet. They roared with approval and together banged their hands with the pugnaciousness of American hockey fans. Jose Tomas was back, and the spectators who crowded into a bullring in Valencia, Spain on July 22, 2011 couldn't have been more delighted [source: AFP].

For 15 months they wondered whether Tomas, the Michael Jordan of bullfighting, would return to the ring. In April 2010, a 1,000-pound (454-kilogram) bull named Navigator gored and almost killed Tomas, Spain's most beloved matador. Recuperating was long and difficult; his injuries were extensive and painful. Yet Tomas battled through the pain of ripped muscle and sinew, much to the delight of Spanish bullfighting-aficionados who howled when Tomas again faced el toro [source: AFP].


Tomas is a cultural icon in Spain, known for taking chances that would make other matadors shudder. So it was no surprise that more than 11,000 people crammed into the Valencia bullring to witness his comeback. The demand for tickets was so great that the crowd could have filled a 90,000-seat stadium. Many of those who actually saw the fight had to buy high-priced tickets from scalpers [source: Fox News].

The Spanish revere their matadors. The bullfight, known also as the corrida, is one of Spain's oldest and most colorful traditions. The bull itself is iconic and has a long, storied place in Spanish culture. Pablo Picasso, one of Spain's most famous artists, thought so much of the bull that the animal takes center stage in some of his work.

While the corrida is perhaps the most celebrated of all Spanish customs, it is not the only tradition. Much of the country's culinary, musical and artistic customs took root centuries ago as the diaspora of Spain's conquerors and immigrants blended their ways of life into an inimitable mixture of music, art, literature and food.

Those aspects of Spanish life have since migrated across the globe, beginning 500 years ago when they conquered new worlds. Whether one is eating tortillas in Santa Fe, N.M., or dancing the tango in Argentina, Spanish traditions permeate the lives of millions, giving weight to the old Spanish proverb, "He who says Spain, says everything."

Spanish Cultural Influences

Located on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain is decidedly a European country, although its people are descendants of varied populations. Spanish culture was influenced by the Celtics, the Phoenicians of the eastern Mediterranean, the Carthaginians and the Germanic tribe known as the Visigoths.

But, it was the Romans, and later the Muslims from North Africa, who played the greatest role in shaping Spain's cultural future. After ousting the Carthaginians in the 3rd century B.C., the Romans at first used Spain, which they called Hispania, as a training ground for its army [source: Cross].


Under the Romans, Hispania flourished for 400 years as united in both law and language. Rome's rulers allowed Romans and Hispanians to intermarry. The Hispanians had a voice in government and helped build new cities, including Valencia and Merida [source: Cross].

The Romans also built massive public works projects, including aqueducts and roadways. Under Roman rule, Hispania's economy grew as it supplied the rest of the empire with grains, wool, olive oil, fruits and lumber [source: Cross].

As the centuries passed, a series of regional Spanish dialects emerged. These dialects based on Latin, which the Romans spoke, slowly gave way to modern Spanish. Eventually, the Romans allowed the Visigoths to rule Hispania in the name of the Roman emperor, after the Visigoths purged the region of the notorious and brutal Vandals, another Germanic tribe. By the 6th century, the Moors, Muslim tribesmen from North Africa, invaded Spain and ousted the Visigoths [source: Cross].

By the 10th century, the Moors' grip on Spain weakened. As the Muslim influence waned, Christianity thrived and by 1492, Christianity -- specifically Catholicism -- replaced Islam as Spain's dominant religious, cultural and political institution. From that point on, the Catholic Church began its heavy influence on Spanish politics, history, customs and traditions [source: Cross].

Customs and Traditions in Spain

A fighting bull runs behind participants during the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. For eight days, bulls run through the historic heart of Pamplona in this fiesta made famous by the 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway.
A fighting bull runs behind participants during the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. For eight days, bulls run through the historic heart of Pamplona in this fiesta made famous by the 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway.
Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Some of the first things that might come to mind when a person thinks of a Spanish tradition include the bullfight, the siesta and flamenco dancers. For some, the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona also tops the list. Pamplona, a small city in Spain's northern Basque region, holds its annual Running of the Bulls as part of a religious festival to honor St. Fermin, the patron saint of the city [source: James].

The festival, made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his 1926 classic "The Sun Also Rises," draws thousands each July to Pamplona's narrow streets. The Running of the Bulls dates back to the 13th century, and has gone on continuously since 1592. The run harkens back to the day when residents of Pamplona ran bulls through the city's streets as a way of corralling the beasts inside Pamplona's bullfighting ring [source: James].


But some people don't believe that being chased by a dozen or so half-ton snarling mammals is a good way to spend an afternoon. They'd rather throw tomatoes at one another. Although La Fiesta de Tomatin does not hold the same allure and provenance as Pamplona's bull running, it is a popular tradition nonetheless. The battle takes place about 30 miles [48.28 kilometers] outside of Valencia, home of the sweet and juicy Valencia tomato [source:].

While many Spanish traditions date back centuries, the Fiesta de Tomatin is a relative newcomer to Spain. It began 60 years or so ago when a group of friends started a tomato fight in the center of Bunol. Why the fight ensued remains a mystery. Today, the battle, in which combatants fling more than 150,000 tomatoes at one another, coincides with the fiesta for the town's patron saint [source:].

For most of the world's Christian children, the most important day of the year is Dec. 25, Christmas. That's when, well, you know the drill. However, in Spain, the most important and best-loved tradition among children is Los Tres Reyes Magos, the day of the Three Wise Men. The Three Wise Men were the Biblical rulers who followed the star of Bethlehem to the birthplace of Jesus. The kings brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. On Jan. 6, Spanish children find gifts inside and outside their shoes [source:].

Sport also has a big place in Spanish culture. The most popular spot is futbol, better known in the United States as soccer. However, jai alai is extremely popular. Jai alai resembles squash or handball. Players use curved wicker baskets called cestas to fling a pelota, or ball, against a wall. Spaniards living in the province of Basque played the first jai-alai game nearly four centuries ago, using the walls of churches as their courts [source: National Jai-Alai Association].

Traditional Spanish Food

Lying at the crossroads of Europe and Africa, myriad cultures from the ancient Greeks to the Moors have influenced Spanish cuisine. When the Phoenicians, a seafaring people, reached southern Spain in about 1000 B.C., they brought with them sauces. The Greeks added olives and olive oil, while Jews and Romans contributed their own culinary twists [source: Ethnic Spicy Food and More].

Yet, it was the Moors, who ruled Spain for 800 years, that contributed the most to Spanish gastronomy. The Moors introduced new kinds of fruits, nuts and seasonings, including almonds, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg and sesame [source: Parrish].


The people of Hispania used these new spices and seasonings in very special ways, using them to season pork, ham and sausage, foods that Muslims were forbidden to eat. Today, the gastronomic tie between Spain and the Moors can still be tasted. Those who have traveled in Spain and Morocco, just across the Strait of Gibraltar, can readily tell the similarities between the two flavor palates [source: Parrish].

The New World also influenced Spanish cooking. When Columbus returned to Spain from the Americas (he was actually looking for a route to Asia), he brought back chocolate, vanilla, beans and potatoes, all of which are now staples of the Spanish diet [source: Ethnic Spicy Food and More].

Spanish cuisine varies among Spain's many regions. For example, jamon Serrano, which means "mountain" ham, is popular in the mountains, while ajo, or garlic, is used everywhere. Although Spanish cooking has influenced many regions, including many Latin America cultures, experts warn not to confuse Spanish cuisine with salsa, chilies or even tortillas. Instead, here are just a few of some truly Spanish foods:

  • Seville Manzanilla olives -- These green olives are home-cured, slightly bitter, and flavored with garlic, lemon and thyme. They are big and meaty.
  • Olive oil -- Spain is the leading producer of olive oil in the world. The Spanish use olive oil not only in their traditional entrees, but also in many desserts.
  • Tomatoes -- Tomatoes are a staple in salads, tomato sauce and gazpacho, a refreshingly cold soup made with peppers, cucumbers, olive oil, vinegar and spices.
  • Paella -- A tasty meal that originated in Valencia. Paella is made with saffron rice, vegetables, seafood and meat.
  • Fish and seafood -- With nearly 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) of coastline, seafood is an important part of the Spanish diet.
  • Tapas -- Lunch and dinner are the two main meals in Spain, although the Spanish like to snack on these small portions of grilled meats, tiny fish and other tasty bites, often served hot and cold.

Traditional Spanish Clothes

Today, most people refer to Andalusian dress as flamenco, and this traditional clothing is still popular.
Today, most people refer to Andalusian dress as flamenco, and this traditional clothing is still popular.
David Sanger/Getty Images

Today, many people consider France the center of the fashion universe, but in the 16th century that distinction went to Spain. At the time, Spanish clothiers stitched together rather sober designs making use of the period's heavy fabrics. They then decorated their work with gold and silver thread, bejeweling the fabric with pearls and other gems, an influence left behind by the Moors.

As was the fashion of the time, well-dressed women often wore hoop skirts known as Farthingales. Men wore their hair short, although they donned beards. Black, red and gold were popular colors for both sexes. Women also dressed in a fan-shaped wired collar called a wisk, while men donned a copotain, a high, inverted bell-shaped hat. Most males of means wore loose breeches called Venetians [source: Central Washington University].


Yet, for all its flamboyant rigidness, the Spanish style of dress became outdated, and the capital of style shifted from Spain to Paris. Still, when you think of Spanish fashion, copotains and wired collars do not come quickly to mind. Instead most people are familiar with the Andalusian-style of dress, which many outsiders consider the Spanish national costume [source: Worth].

Today, most people refer to Andalusian dress as flamenco. Such traditional clothing is still popular. And according to Marbella Guide and Spain Traditions, people continue to wear such traditional clothing, including the following:

  • Mantilla -- a long lace or silk veil that women wear over their heads and shoulders. The mantilla is the Spanish equivalent of the veil worn by Moorish women. The mantilla was made popular because women could not enter a Catholic church without covering their heads.
  • Peineta -- a tortoise-shell comb used to hold the mantilla. Although popular in the 19th century, Spanish and Latin women still wear the peineta during special occasions such as weddings and religious ceremonies.
  • Traje corto -- short jackets with high waistbands worn with a white shirt by males. Many times the waistband is colored. Men often wear the traje corto with the sombrero de alanche, a wide-brimmed hat.

Traditional Spanish Music and Dance

If any one thing symbolizes the fieriness and passion of Spanish culture, it is its traditional music and dance, although there is no one form. Both are as varied as the country's culinary repertoire, influenced by the varied cultures that settled the region. Yet, if there is one genre that symbolizes Spanish fervor, it is flamenco, the country's chief musical export.

Flamenco, which dates back to the 1500s, is a fusion of four distinct cultures: gypsy, Moorish, Jewish and native Andalusian. Flamenco was once played solely by the poor. The guitar is the chief instrument of the flamenco, and strumming a flamenco beat is not easy. The rhythm is multifarious and is usually accompanied by the clapping of hands known as palmas [source: Classical Guitar Illustrated History].


Flamenco music accompanies the flamenco dance, the best known of the gypsy dances. There are three types of flamenco dance: the alegrias, which is the dignified form; the high-energy farruca; and the humorous bulerias. Each is categorized by different beats [source: Classical Guitar Illustrated History].

The rumba catalana is similar to flamenco. Born in the Catalonian port city of Barcelona, and nurtured by that city's musicians who saw new forms of music come onto the docks, the rumba arrived from Cuba during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Catalonian performers took the Cuban rumba and molded it into their own unique style [source: National Geographic].

The Celtics of northern Europe also influenced Spanish music. The music of Galicia and Asturias, both regions in northern Spain, is marked by the gaita, or bagpipes, along with drums. The jota, from Aragon in northeastern Spain, are upbeat, joyous songs, accompanied by dancing, castanets and tambourines [source: National Geographic].

Fortunately for the rest of the world, Spain was able to export much of its food, music, fashion and other traditions to other countries. In return, each region has put its own distinctive spin on these gifts. Whoever said, "He who says Spain, says everything" could not have been more accurate.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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