Thursday, January 06, 2005

Christmas and the New Year

Being western european and predominantly Catholic, one would expect the Spanish Christmas celebrations to be similar to those of Ireland. However a Spanish flavour to the festivities mean some surprising differences.

The first of the festive dinners is on Christmas Eve as opposed to the day of the 25th. This is a family gathering of obligation and is named "La Noche Buena" meaning The Good Night. Strangely no universal Christmas menu exists as such, with the vast majority of Madrid families having their own eating traditions. Red cabbage is the common vegetable of the day while households vary between roast lamb and seafood such as barnacles, baby eel, and sea bream. The Barnacles were particularly popular after last years public apprehension caused by the Prestige disaster. Naturally there are some who eat turkey but this is a newly imported practise. There is however a traditional dessert called Turron. This seems to be an all encompassing name to describe a huge variety of sweet cakes, which have absolutely nothing in common except for the time of year that they are eaten. I have counted more than eight varieties with some named after areas such as Turron de Alicante.

With the exception of Catalonia, December 26th which is Saint Stephens Day is not celebrated and therefore not a bank holiday. As a result much of the population find themselves unwillingly back at work until the second of the Christmas gatherings which is held on New Years Eve. It is referred to as "La Noche Vieja" , meaning Old Night and this too is an obligatory family meal. To spend New Years Eve without family is considered unthinkable and completely out of the question. Therefore those who wish to celebrate with friends will normally wait to ring in the New Year with their kin and only then hit the town. As a result many prefer to celebrate with companions on the previous night, December 30th.

It is Madrid tradition to gather in the main city centre plaza, Sol, for the New Year countdown. The custom is to swallow a grape for each month of the year as the clock chimes. Here groups can usually be seen passing around a bottle of Cava (Spanish Champagne) or Asturian Cider to help wash down the hastily guzzled grapes. The revellers who do turn up in Sol are usually those who finish work too late to make it home, those who managed to escape the dinner table early, those who dragged along their family, or of course foreigners like myself.

The third and last of the family feasts occurs on January 6th, Los Reyes Magos (The Magic Kings). We in Ireland think of Little christmas as nothing more than the date on which the decorations must come down. In Spain however this is undoubtedly just as big (if not bigger) an occasion than Christmas Eve. While the children in Ireland have already broken or grown tired of their new presents, the Spanish in a slightly more biblical tradition are only unwrapping the gifts brought by Balthazar, Melchoir and Kaspar. Unfortunately however Los Reyes falls at the very end of the school holidays which does not give the children very much time for enjoyment of their new toys. As a result of this and not due to European Deregulation, Santa Claus has been contracted in. It is therefore becoming increasingly common on Christmas night for Father Christmas who, slowly edging in on the territorial monopoly of The Three Kings, delivers some "but not all" of the presents. But one thing that has never changed down through the ages is that before going to bed on the night of Los Reyes, children will usually leave out three glasses of Cava for the Magic Kings aswell as three slices of Roscon (traditional Los Reyes cake). For the three camels there is a large basin of water and as opposed to christmas stockings each child in the house will position a pair of shoes.

Taking pride of place in the Spanish home is the Nativity scene. This is by no means on a small scale such as the "on top of the television" versions in Eire. Your typical Spanish construction will normally take take up the area of a large coffee table or even comandeer the entire wall length of a room. In each house that have I entered I have been immediately escorted to the Crib which on close inspection contains a number of different stories. Over the years a family will slowly build up their project, which aside from the Manger might contain Harrods Castle, The over-booked inn house, shephards and flock, The Three Kings, The North star, The Archangel Gabriel and of course some local Bethlehem lad relieving his bladder against a tree or at a river.

This year in an interesting twist to the festive tales, there was a dramatic decrease in the consumption of the Catalonian Cava. This was not the result of a much needed clamp down on drunk driving but rather that of a popular boycott against the best and most famous Cava producing region. It was an unofficial nationwide reaction to recent comments made by Carlod Rovira, leader of the popular Catalan Nationist party. The controversial politician called on Catalans to withold their support for the Madrid 2012 Olympic Games bid. People felt particularly enraged given the huge enthusiasm that the entire peninsula showed for the previous Barcelona Games. The brazen Catalan later went on to futher infuriate all including many of his own, when he made an apology in which he admitted making a mistake and that a "politician should not say in public what all catalans think in private". Catalan Cava producers have acknowledged a huge decrease in sales over what is normally their key season. In one Madrid supermarket a bottle of Bach catalan cava which is normally priced at 10 euros (not cheap by Spanish standards) was selling for 2 euros.

December 28th, El dia de los Innocentes, is the day on which the biblical King Harrod ordered the murder of all babies under the age of 2 within his kingdom. In the Spanish language the word Innocent can also mean Niaive. As a result of this second meaning, this day of the innocents is now treated as the Spanish version of April fools day. And so it is that on this day each year many Spanish newspapers publish an untrue story. This time around a local paper in Extremadura (bordering Portugal) wrote that the principle town of the region was to erect a statue of the catalan Carlod Rovira. The truth being that the controversial Catalan caused the clearly inferior Extremadura Cava to have its best sales in history !!!

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