Happy Holidays from Spain
By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, I start to get a little nostalgic. I start thinking about turkey, American English, ranch dressing, craft beer, to-go cups, and all things “American” that I secretly love but don’t like to admit. The holidays really have a way of making you miss home and all things familiar. Until recently, I had never, ever spent a Christmas away from my mother’s home. My family is very traditional when it comes to Christmas—stockings, gingerbread cookies, ugly sweater parties, family photos, etc. In fact, my older sister and I still leave notes for Santa to read while eating our homemade cookies (yes, he still visits our house even though we are adults). Our notes however, have certainly changed throughout the years—no more requesting bikes and photos of Rudolph… just celebrity boyfriends and expensive cars—clearly we’ve yet to make it to the nice list.
I’ve spent the last two years away from home during the holiday season. One Christmas was spent SCUBA diving with sharks in the Bahamas and last year in Germany. The latter more representative of a “traditional” Christmas—and I have to admit that the Germans do Christmas well, but the cold… is enough to keep me hiding indoors in flannel all day. While I spent Christmas itself in Germany last year, I was in Spain during most of the month of December, getting a taste of Spanish traditions and how they celebrate the holidays here.
I started seeing my local supermarket promoting Christmas treats in early December. The overwhelmingly popular Christmas sweets in Andalucia are Mantecados and Polvorones. They are typical Christmas cookies from Spain and are sold in pretty wrappers or even in nice boxes and set out in store fronts, offices, etc. for everyone to enjoy. They come in all kinds of flavors and are sometimes made with nuts. While I am a huge fan of Spanish tapas, wine, and ham, these little treats just leave me thirsty! However, the good news about them is that they’re usually set out next to Anise, a typical Christmas liquor. My first encounter with this combo was actually at a copy shop last December.
Me (in my best Spanish): Can I please make 3 photocopies of this worksheet?
Attendant: No problem. Want some anise?
Me: It’s ten in the morning.
Attendant: It’s Spain.
Oh yes, only in Spain are there free cookies and alcohol while you wait. The anise bottle is actually really useful once finished as they turn it into a Christmas instrument, running a fork along the uneven edges to make a percussion sound. In America we have peaceful Christmas carolers who go door to door singing, but in Spain its more common to find very large groups of people walking from bar to bar at night singing cheerful songs and playing the anise bottle and the zambomba—another local percussion instrument which you can see here! These carolers are really quite lively and get entire restaurants and bars to sing along with them—often entire families or organizations sing together on the nights leading up to Christmas. They march around spreading holiday spirit.
The lead up to Christmas last year was a really fun experience in my school as well. In the beginning of December my school put together one of the biggest nativity scenes, “belen” in Spanish, I’ve ever seen at the entrance of the school. The kids were all participating making figurines to add to the collection and were all very quick to point out the “pooping man”… I wasn’t sure if I understood them correctly but sure enough for every Spanish nativity set, there is literally a pooping man figurine called the “caganet.” It’s actually a little game for the kids to have to try and spot the pooping in the large nativity sets! This little figurine made its way into my Christmas package that I sent my family—needless to say, it needed a little explaining.
Another thing I learned from my students in Frigiliana is that Papa Noel aka Santa Claus doesn’t visit the majority of families in Spain, instead, they’re visited by The Three Magic Kings/Wisemen who bring gifts on January 6th. You can imagine the debates that broke out in my second grade class, a mess of students from all over Europe… oh the jealousy of the kids that are visited by both the Magic Kings and Santa Claus! The Three Magic Kings are Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar and they make their first appearance on January 5th in parades around the country that usually start at dusk. Frigiliana has really narrow streets and normal parade floats aren’t able to fit, so the Three Kings usually arrive via donkey. The next day, children wake to find that the Magic Kings left them presents. The day is spent opening gifts and enjoying a typical cake. The Three Kings cake, or rosco in Spanish, is very sweet and often made with dried fruit. Just to save you some dental work—EAT WITH CAUTION—there are not one but two little surprises hidden in these cakes. If you happen to bite into a little king figurine, you’ll have good luck the rest of the year, and if you happen to bite into a dried bean… well, you’ll be obligated to buy the cake for next year! And if you’re clever, or Spanish, you’ll just swallow the bean and pretend it wasn’t you. The very next day, January 7th, work and school resumes—leaving the kids jittery and wanting to play with their new toys… a teacher’s nightmare! My Spanish students think that American children are so lucky that they get to enjoy their presents for nearly the entirety of the holiday break… ah, to be a kid again!
Speaking of kids… The end of December holds another interesting Spanish tradition—something closely related to American/British April Fool’s Day and is celebrated on the 28th called Dia de los Inocentes (Innocent’s Day). The history of this day comes from the biblical story of the birth of Jesus and the order to have all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. Many innocent children were killed and the innocents are now celebrated in the form of “acting” like a kid and playing pranks on each other.
And finally, if you find yourself celebrating New Year’s Eve in Spain, don’t spend your countdown looking for someone to kiss at midnight like that of American tradition, instead, you better be stuffing your face with grapes! Yes, one grape is consumed for each second of the last 12 seconds of the year—giving you 12 months of good luck for the next year. I felt so silly trying to eat the grapes as fast as possible last year, washing them down with champagne in the main square last year. It’s actually a lot more difficult than you’d think! Besides being armed with lucky grapes on New Year’s Eve, you should also know that it’s mandatory to wear red underpants on this night! Origin: no clue—but hey why not?!
In my opinion, the holidays in Spain are not to be missed. They’re a perfect example of Spanish culture and spirit—many family dinners, fireworks and funny traditions. I really appreciate how the holidays are much less commercialized than where I am from—there is much less focus on material gifts and more focus is put on family, friends and having a good time—this could be partially due to the current economic crisis, but I’ll take it! Happy holidays from Smart Holidays to you!