Given the significance of what Christmas celebrates,
the birth of God made man, it's strange to reflect that one of the
few certainties about Christmas and all its accumulated traditions
is that nobody really has any idea when Jesus was born. Christ's
birthday as the 25th of December was arrived at only after two or
three hundred years of debate, by which time memories of the event
can hardly have been fresh. Nor was it a date that was accepted
by all branches of the Church. However, it did fit neatly into the
calendar, the days around the winter solstice having long been a
time associated with pagan festivities, especially that of the Roman
feast of the sun, Natalis Invicti, The Birth of the Invincible One,
whose light shone ever longer and stronger from this time of the
have those from long ago to thank also for the tradition of having
a bird as the centrepiece of the feast. The symbolism of the idea
was pertinent, as it was believed that the geese and other migratory
birds which returned each year to northern lands from the south
were messengers sent from heaven to bring with them the spring,
and all the abundance that would entail. The sacrifice of such a
bird at around the winter solstice was a gesture by which in effect
the victim was returned to the heavens. There it could petition
for the swift return of spring.
traditions, of course, vary from country to country. Here in
Spain, Papá Noel, or Father Christmas, is a comparatively
recent arrival, mainly thanks to television and Hollywood. Santa
will generally bring Spanish children something, but the bulk of
their presents always come with the Reyes Magos, the three Wise
Men or Kings. Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar arrive from the East
on the evening of the 5th of January, process down the streets in
their chariots and, when the children are safely tucked up in bed,
will pass from house to house, piling presents into the shoes that
have been left out in excited expectation. Those who have been naughty
will wake to find only lumps of sweet black rock called 'carbón'
or coal. Everybody, however, will tuck into their 'roscón
de Reyes', the ring-shaped cake studded with candied fruit representing
the emeralds and rubies on the Kings' robes.
striking difference in the Spanish Christmas is that the huge
family dinner is celebrated on the night of Christmas Eve, rather
than on Christmas Day. People spare no expense on the food, and
make a point of decorating the table with their finest cutlery,
glassware and linen. After daunting quantities of food and drink,
carols are sung round the family crib, called in Spanish the 'belén'
or 'nacimiento' or 'pesebre'. These nativity scenes go back to the
thirteenth century and Francis of Assisi, who used a real ox and
ass in the one he made in a cave. The idea caught on and spread
to Spain in the eighteenth century. Elaborate versions can be seen
in shops, churches, town halls and cathedrals. In some places, Arcos
de la Fontera near Jerez, for example, you can visit 'belenes
vivos', where townspeople dress up in period clothes as the characters
in the scene and transform areas of the town into Bethlehem.
do people eat over Christmas?
The menu varies from region to region. Here in Andalucía
the typical Christmas Eve dinner will start with the 'picoteo',
the nibbles of the best serrano ham and other cold cuts you can
afford. There will be good cheese, and plates of exhorbitantly priced
prawns. Foie gras is becoming more popular too, and
the seriously rich will splash out on 'angulas', baby eels, though
one suspects this is just to show that they can afford the stratospheric
prices. They would never admit that the little elvers only actually
taste of the garlic, chilli and oil that they are cooked with.
To follow, every family has its own traditional dishes. Lots of
people like a big fish as the centrepiece, sea-bream or 'besugo'
being the most popular. Many prefer a turkey, either truffled or
in the delicious 'pepitoria' sauce. Others choose roast lamb, with
its obvious religious and seasonal symbolism, and it is very good
at this time of year.
when you thought you couldn't eat another thing, out comes a
tray piled with 'turrón' and other Christmas goodies. 'Turrón'
is a nougat made of almonds, sugar, honey and egg white, and is
a speciality of the Alicante region in the east of Spain. There
are many types, but two are much more popular than the rest: the
chunky 'Alicante' style and the smooth and creamy 'Jijona'. If you're
ever in the area it's well worth a visit to a turrón factory
in the town of Jijona (now often spelt Xixona), for the aroma of
roasting almonds will convince you that they must be making the
most delicious sweet known to man. The Spanish certainly think that's
the case as every year they get through appreciably more than a
kilo per man, woman and child.
Alongside the turrón will also be a selection of crumbly
'mantecados', sweetmeats made of lard, almonds, sugar and flour
supposedly invented either in Antequera or Estepa in Andalucía
in the nineteenth century. They are mass-produced in the factories
of Estepa, or you can buy more home-made-style ones from convents.
They are something of an acquired taste.
if that were not enough, fried and stuffed pastries are popular,
and lots of people put marzipan figures or cakes on their sweet
trays, too. Marzipan, made of fifty per cent almonds, fifty per
cent sugar, goes back a long way in Spanish history - it's thought
to have been introduced by the Arabs in the eighth century. It is
a speciality of Toledo and its region, and of its nuns, of course,
from the Convento de Santa Isabel, for example.
After dinner, a stroll is required, and many will head for the church
to attend Midnight Mass, called here La Misa del Gallo, the Mass
of the Cockerel. One explanation for the name is that a cockerel
was the first in the stable to witness the birth of Christ, and
announced it to the world with his crow. After the Mass, there will
be much greeting of friends, children will set off bangers, and
you may come across a 'pastoral', a group of people dressed as shepherds
and shepherdesses. They roam the streets singing carols to the inimitable
accompaniment of the 'zambomba'. This is a crude instrument made
by stretching a goatskin tightly over a flowerpot. A hole is made
in the skin to accomodate a wetted stick - and it must be continuously
wetted - and this is then thrust forcefully up and down, producing
quite the strangest sound you will hear anywhere at Christmas.
families will have more reason than usual to celebrate, following
the huge lottery draw on the 22nd. That morning, all you hear coming
from radios and televisions is the sound of the numbers being called
as they are drawn from the great churning balls called 'bombos'.
The voices calling the numbers belong to boys and girls from the
Colegio de San Ildefonso. It is a great honour for them, they practice
hard, and their delight is plain when they announce one of the big
prizes, especially El Gordo, the Fat One, worth a cool two million
euros per winning ticket.
can have a pre-Christmas binge, and catch some fun local dances,
at the famous and hugely popular 'fiesta de las migas' in Torrox,
on the last Sunday before Christmas. 'Migas' means crumbs, and in
many places in Spain the dish is made with stale bread. Here, however,
plain wheat flour is used. It is cooked with oil, garlic, water
and salt; a simple peasant dish of stodge, therefore, but delicious
if properly prepared and accompanied by something tasty like the
unusual salad served in Torrox. It contains salt cod, olives, oranges,
tomatoes and onions, and is called 'ensalada arriera'.
the 28th December, Spain remembers the Slaughter of the Innocents
by celebrating a sort of day-long April Fool's Day, 'El día
de los Inocentes', when all sorts of 'inocentadas' or practical
jokes are played, not least by the press. Just outside Málaga,
at Puerto de la Torre, they also hold a fiesta on this day in honour
of the flamenco-tinged 'verdial' dance, where the participants dress
in plain country clothes but with weirdly decorated hats. .
Which brings us to the year's end and 'La Noche Vieja' when, after
a large dinner and as the clock strikes twelve, you try to swallow
twelve lucky grapes, one for each chime. This is much easier if
you peel and even seed the grapes first, and nobody I know considers
this to be cheating. There follows the 'cotillón', the party
involving lots of music and dancing which will last until day break.
The streets are strangely quiet the next day.