Yesterday we entered the supermarket and ran straight into a huge improvised table full of small plastic containers with uvas blancas (white grapes). At first, I thought it to be a promotion stunt. Then I remembered our daughter-in-law once told us you had to eat one grape at every beat of the clock at midnight on New Year’s Eve (la Nochevieja). This should be an omen for good luck in the coming new year.
Twelve grapes in twelve seconds. That’s quite a challenge. It probably explains the warning in a Spanish newspaper, a couple of days ago, that grapes can kill young children. They swallow the grapes without grinding them down with their teeth and hence they suffocate.
The question is of course why in Spain ‘las doce uvas de suerte’ (the twelve grapes of fortune) emerged as a national tradition. The best explanation is the one I found on the Spanish version of Wikipedia. At the end of the 19th Century, the mayor of Madrid allowed citizens to celebrate Los Reyes Magos (Three Kings) in any way that suited them as long as they paid to the city a due of 5 pesetas. At that time most bourgeois Madrilenos saw this as an opportunity to flash their wealth, by eating white grapes and drinking champagne in public. They probably copied the grapes and champagne from French and German aristocrats that had moved to Spain.
In the rich Spanish tradition to ridicule the bourgeois and their habits (the best-known example is that of Cervantes’ Don Quichote), the next year common Madrilenos started to eat white grapes at New Year’s Eve, a grape at every beat of the clock on New Year’s Eve, to express their personal hope to be able to share the good fortune of the bourgeois in the coming year. The newspapers started to report about the custom and in a very short time, it conquered the Spanish-speaking part of the globe.