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A Spanish Christmas

If I had to choose where to spend Christmas, I would choose Spain.

Spaniards enjoy a long Christmas season. Though seasonal shopping and decoration hanging start here well in December, later than other places in the world, celebrations really encompass the whole twelve days. Are you ready for your Spanish Christmas?

When planning for a Christmas Spanish style, remember a Nativity set should take a central place. Tradition compels you to add something to your family trove every year. Madrid, for instance, sets up an outdoors Christmas market every year at La Plaza Mayor, in the city center, where you can get any kind of Christmas decoration, items for New Year’s Eve party, or traditional instruments to accompany your Christmas carols. Other towns have similar markets. You will find there earthenware figures to complement your Nativity set. As they don’t come cheap, families start with a basic set and visit the market each year to get an angel this time, a shepherd boy next, maybe some Roman soldiers after that. Your nativity set layout is a matter of pride, even church pride or city pride, as churches, towns and cities compete to have the best ones. Some of them are open to public; visiting beautiful Nativity scenes can while away a lazy afternoon during the Christmas break.

A Christmas tree is the next big thing. Glass balls, garlands and lights are the preferred tree decorations. You won’t find edible treats hanging from the branches here, as in many other countries. More garlands on the doors or Christmas lights on the garden trees come afterwards.

Christmas Eve, first major event in the Spanish holiday celebrations and as important as Christmas day, if not more, opens the season on 24th December. Move the evening meal to a later time than a normal day. Bear in mind it usually falls on a working day, though how much work it is achieved I could not say, and though many businesses let people out early -some as early as lunch time- you must exchange Season’s Greetings with your colleagues; must you not? Objective achieved over some drinks and nibbles, as almost every social occasion in Spain. After that, pick up some last minute items and head home. This fête concerns only your close family. Celebrate at home; going out for Christmas Eve doesn’t appear in tradition books.

Close family means parents and children, grandparents and great grandparents also count. The evening gathering will start with some drinks, waiting for the last members in the family to arrive home after finishing work and social round, and for your meal to be ready. Seating around the Christmas table decked out in all its finery will come later.

Christmas Eve menu varies within the Spanish regions; seafood is traditional in Galicia while the central regions would go for a roast, baby lamb or suckling pig. Turkey makes another popular option. On Christmas Eve, and indeed during all Christmas celebrations, turrón, polvorones, for sure, mantecados and marzipan, likely, stage as favorite desserts or with coffee after the meal. Wine is served with food, cavas –Champagne like sparkling wines- and cider with dessert. If choosing only one to serve through the whole meal, choose cava.

Christmas Eve would have concluded with attendance to Midnight Mass, however, in the 21st many churches celebrate Midnight Mass at 10 PM on the grounds that turnout has diminished greatly. All true, except most families will seat for dinner on Christmas Eve around 10 PM. On these grounds, I fail to see how Midnight Mass audience will ever increase.

Christmas Day, also grand, will open to the extended family. Uncles, aunts and cousins, even many times removed, count as extended family. A similar menu to Christmas Eve, only  this time turkey has more chances than any other meat or poultry, on the count a bird could feed a small army and with probably as many as that attending the event. Even if a sweet dessert is in the menu, pass again turrones and polvorones on their tray, dessert and coffee time, please. Leave the tray out and refill when required.

Christmas Day gone, you’ll find yourself busy preparing for the next big day, New Year’s Eve, and shopping for presents. Beliefs are now divided, some households receive the visit of Papá Noel arguing children can enjoy the toys over the holidays, most still wait for los Reyes Magos, 6th January, to bring their presents. Between shopping and prepping, you still have time to share the holiday spirit with friends. One cannot see them all at once and there will be invitations for dinners, drinks and more or less formal get together. Just be cautious if the invitation is for the 28th December.

The 28th December is the Spanish equivalent of April fool’s Day. Newspapers and television will publish some fake news. Spotting one will make you look smart. Just know more than one may lurk in the paper to gull innocents. Not unusual to print something outrageous many will spot, and knife you with a second one, when you are confident you’ve discovered the trap. Beware of people becoming too friendly on this day! The popular joke is to stick paper dolls at your back without you noticing. If anyone so much as taps your shoulder, go immediately and watch your back at the mirror. If you notice everybody smiling around you on a 28th December, go to the mirror. After so many years on the game, Spaniards have become very skillful at avoiding the dolls and the joke is on the wane, but any unsuspecting foreigner might become fair game.

New Year’s Eve, the next big day, remains as an evening to go out and stay out; you are likely to find the way back to your bed at the crack of dawn. Make top in your priority list to have an invitation to one or many parties, preferably private ones with no set finish time, though with the size of the average home being reduced every year, there is no room for dancing and the number of private parties has also dwindled. Luckily, students groups at college, nightclubs would organize dance events, hotels and country clubs would host dinner and dance ones; black tie, of course, or as close to that as you can be. It is amazing the way Spaniards, who love informal and would not step into a long dress or a tuxedo to save their lives, will do so with relish this evening. Men would sometimes be spared the tux for an elegant suit. Girls don their very best. The outfit for New Year’s Eve will be topic of conversation for many, many days and the object of more than one shopping spree.

Practice eating your lucky grapes. The Spanish custom is to eat twelve grapes as the clock chimes midnight on the 31st of December. Those who achieve it are supposed to get all their whishes granted for the following year. I fully endorse this belief. We are talking about an impossible task and those who manage to eat their grapes to the rhythm of the Puerta del Sol clock bell, without choking, will achieve anything they set their minds on, not by sheer luck but because they have demonstrated to have exceptional timing, will power and self-control. Possessing all these virtues, how can they fail when they apply themselves to any other mission?

The most beloved clock to chime midnight on New Year’s Eve is that of Puerta del Sol, Madrid. Brave souls who love that sardines in a can feeling can eat their grapes in situ. Go early to secure a good spot, it really fills up. People might have listened to chimes of the household clock or the Town Hall clock before the radio, first, and television, afterwards, started to take the sound of the Puerta del Sol clock to every home. Not only the bell has a nice sound, the clock chimes with a twist, making the grape eating more challenging. Attempts have been made to broadcast the New Year’s Eve midnight chimes from other places and other clocks; none had the same charisma.

New Year’s Eve midnight chimes probably rank as the most watched television event in Spain. The few advertisements broadcasted close to midnight find a rapt audience, specially the last one. This last advertisement of the year turns out one of the most expensive television ad spaces to be had, with the ad broadcasted directly after the chimes a close second. Those remain a close secret until released to the television audience. The name of the company to win the space has been leaked on occasion; never the content of the ad, leaving room for some speculation and making it part of Christmas conversations.

Wherever you go on New Year’s Eve, you will find your lucky grapes. Let’s say you chose to spend the evening at the theater on such a day, a perfectly acceptable decision. You would receive your box of grapes and some sparkling wine, maybe some confetti. Just before midnight, the performance would stop and everyone would go through the grape ritual, actors included, exchange good whishes, cheer for the New Year, throw some confetti, if allowed. The play would resume then. When there was a man behind the projector, this also happened at movie theatres. Any party starting before midnight includes the grape ritual, and the confetti, it goes without saying. Television will interrupt their usual programming to broadcast the chimes.

Any New Year’s Eve cotillion worth its salt would finish in the early hours of the morning, sometimes past dawn, you know the party got to an end when the traditional Spanish breakfast of hot, thick chocolate and churros is served.

New Year’s Day is a lazy one. Not unexpected. Some people would choose to spend the day skiing or traveling to the slopes for a few days skiing, if they have the energy, to come back ready for the last of the Christmas festivities.

Many Spanish kids send their letters and whish lists to the Reyes Magos. They have plenty of opportunities, as their messengers establish themselves in many public places. On the 5th Reyes Magos and all their paraphernalia of pageboys, sacks of presents and camels will parade through many cities, a grand event in Madrid. That nigh, before going to sleep, children will leave their shoes by the window, roscón and sweet wine for the Men, even water and carrots for the camels. If they were very good, a pile of toys would appear by their shoes come the morning, if they were not that good, they will find a pile of coal, only edible and sweet coal chunks.

You might celebrate the evening with yet another dinner or attending to some of the galas and significant events going on this day. More likely you would gather to share roscón and hot chocolate. Roscón de Reyes is a sweet brioche like cake, shaped like a ring, hiding a little surprise in the cake dough. Depending where you are, the one to find the treasure will pay for dinner or will be the one to walk away free. If you are invited to have roscón, try to find out in advance. Opening an exchanging presents or more rounds of Roscón de Reyes is all what would happen on the 6th January.

Christmas festivities officially finish 6th January at midnight. Crews make a very good job of taking all Christmas decorations down, cleaning streets and shops during the night.  Spain wakes up to a perfect normal working day the next morning.

Personal Christmas statistics

My first conscious memory, at age tree, is from a morning on a sixth of January, the day Spanish children receive presents brought by those Three Wise Men. I can still see the lounge at the house we were living then, full of presents, balloons and Christmas decoration, definitely better than any toy shop I could ever remember. I remember the eager faces of my parents as they encouraged me to open the boxes and their delight as I did so. I remember my thrill at finding the wonders inside. I still remember the feeling of awe I experienced. Of course, I didn’t grasp the meaning at the time. For the little girl I was, magic had happened at that day that house. Those magical January mornings were repeated for many years. The magic of my childhood Christmases was so complete that when confronted with some of the truths of life, I refused flatly to believe them. I went on completely engaged in childish ways two or three years more I should. Honestly, I don’t regret that; my only regret comes from not having been able to inject that much magic to my children Christmas festivities.

Six is the largest number of parties I attended in one single New Year’s Evening.

10:30 AM is the latest I have arrived back home. Not because of how good time I was having, but because my date’s car broke down and we had to push it out of the road and find other means of transport. Imagine that in cocktail dress and impossibly high heels. The two following years, same date, same car, different technical problem but still the same story. We never had a problem with the car apart from those nights.

Twice I had to deliver my date at the airport still in his tuxedo, case and skis under the arm, because we were running late.

Only once I have found the hidden treasure in a Roscón de Reyes.

Wherever I am in the world, whatever I am doing, I share the Spanish midnight chimes on New Year’s Eve with my siblings by phone or video-conference.