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Special tours of Madrid spotlight nativity scenes, Xmas legends

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If you happen to be in Madrid this month you should know about a slate of special tours aimed at giving visitors a better understanding of Spanish traditions over the Christmas season. (You'll also find out why Spaniards eat 12 green grapes on New Year's Eve, one at each chime of the clock at midnight.)

A particularly popular tour will take you to a hefty number of nativity scenes around the city, including the famous scene at the Royal Palace and others at churches, convents, monasteries and government buildings. Another tour focuses on traditions around the heart of Madrid at its City Centre, where you'll stop at stores and specialty shops to sample the country's traditional Christmas cakes and sweets. You'll also drop by the Centre's Puerto del Sol to discover the origin of the iconic clock there (it's watched on TV by millions of grape-eating Spaniards at midnight each New Year's Eve).

Yet another tour, designed for families with youngsters, visually tells a tale called “The Adventures of Raton Perez and King Buby” – the Spanish equivalent of the tooth fairy.

Or perhaps you'd like to zip around the city's Christmas traditions on roller skates. Or on bicycles. There are tours on skates and bikes, too.

Put together by Madrid's City Council, these and other holiday tours – all accompanied by official guides – are around two hours long and typically cost 5.9 euros (about US$8.00). Children under 5 go along free.

The City Council also stages a number of year-round tours of the city.

About those 12 grapes... The tradition goes back to 1909, when Spain's grape growers had a fantastically good year. So good, in fact, that they had a huge surplus of grapes – and had to find a way to get the country to eat more of them. They did that by cooking up one of the best public relations schemes of all time: By selling the notion to the Spanish public that eating one grape when each of the 12 chimes bonged at midnight on New Year's Eve would bring good luck.

It worked, and Spaniards have been celebrating the New Year that way ever since. (Another part of the tradition is wearing red underwear at the time – but that's another story.)

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