A New Year's custom difficult to digest

A New Year's custom difficult to digest
  • Lucky grapes. The strange practice of eating 12 grapes at midnight is thought to have been introduced in the 19th century by the Madrid bourgeoisie, who copied the idea from the French

As the old year comes to an end and the stroke of the clock at midnight is eagerly awaited, the people of Spain get ready to participate in the unusual custom of the twelve lucky grapes. This strange ordeal usually takes place in the main plazas of towns and cities around Spain, especially at the foot of the clock in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. But this year, most will perform this difficult ritual in front of their television sets.

This Spanish custom has its roots in Madrid, but it has caught on among the expat communities, although few have mastered the procedure.

At the first dong of midnight, one must pop a grape into their mouth and swallow it before the second dong, approximately three seconds later. There is little time to chew and swallow, much less savour the twelve grapes, but if you eat them all by the end of the final bell’s toll — and this does not mean finishing with a mouthful of pulp and pips — then one can expect good luck throughout the coming year: this is, of course, providing one does not choke to death in the process.

Caricature from 1911 showing various politicians eating the lucky grapes in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid.

Caricature from 1911 showing various politicians eating the lucky grapes in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. / SUR

The custom can be traced back to the 19th century, although the exact origins remain debatable. One popular theory claims it was popularised in 1903 after a bumper grape harvest in Alicante (where around 80 per cent of the lucky grapes come from), although the republication of old newspaper articles prove that it actually began in the 1890s. An article titled The Benefactor of Grapes published on 1 January 1894 reported that the custom “has acquired among us a letter of nature”. Another article said: “The enduring habit of eating the grapes when the first bell of twelve sounded, had countless families gathered together in fraternal colloquium.”

French origins

It is claimed that the bourgeoisie of Madrid copied the idea from the French tradition of having grapes and champagne on the last day of the year. The new custom soon took off among the well-heeled families , but it was quickly ironised by the poorer citizens, who began converging on the Puerta del Sol to mock the new upper-class practice.

Although scoffing twelve grapes at midnight is somewhat difficult, it is more appetising than the Russian custom of washing down the ashes of your wish list with champagne, and less dangerous than the Danish tradition of hurling plates and crockery in the air as the clock strikes.