Feliz Navidad: More Christmas traditions from Spain

Christmas, christmas, Navidad, navidad, Spain, MadridMerry Christmas from Madrid! Last year I covered some of the big Spanish Christmas traditions. This year I’d like to talk on a more personal level about how I and my in-laws celebrate. I’m married to a Spaniard. A Castilian to be precise, as regional identity is important here. Living in Madrid we have a very Castilian Christmas. My five-year-old son is pretty much Castilian too, although he’s got a Canadian dad and speaks English as fluently as his public school English teacher.

Being a good little Spanish kid, he’s written out his letter to the Three Kings about what he wants: The Lego Tech crane, a parking garage for his cars, “everything about Real Madrid” (the city football team), and “La Casa de los Gormitis”. The Gormitis don’t seem to have made it across the Atlantic but they’re the big thing for European boys right now. It’s a cartoon where children have a secret base under their parents’ house and turn into monsters to fight the bad monsters in the fantasy world of the Gormitis. Yeah, it hits all the buttons.

Of course the Three Kings came to visit his school, but my son wasn’t fooled. He immediately recognized that the African king Baltasar was played by his English teacher, a black guy from London. Reminds me of that Jesse James story I wrote about earlier today. Since the Kings don’t show up at our home to put gifts in our shoes until January 6, we still haven’t done our shopping. It always feels like the Spanish Christmas gives you more time to shop, even though it’s still exactly a year between gift-giving.

The season is in full swing, however. Everyone has been buying tickets for El Gordo, the national lottery. Personally I think gambling is a stupid waste of money, but I’ll be checking out the numbers this year because my optometrist gave me two tickets! This is a common way for businesses to reward regular customers.

This week my family set up two Bethlehem scenes. My mother-in-law has an old one of lead figures that goes on a side table in the dining room. It has the Kings, buildings, stream, bridge, the manger, and lots of villagers. Over it all Herod looks down from his castle with a rather grumpy expression. This diorama is far bigger and more elaborate than the diminutive Christmas tree we put in the hall. We also have a Playmobil Bethlehem scene (called Los Clicks in Spanish) that my son sets up in his room.

Last night we chowed down on lombarda (red cabbage with pine nuts), langostinos (king prawns), and heaps of nuts, candies, polvorones, and turrón. Polvorón is my favorite. These are crumbly little shortbreads made with flour, nuts, sugar, and milk. Like with Oreos, there’s more than one way to eat them. Some people just bite down and let the whole thing crumble in a tasty, dusty mess. Others squeeze them into a compact bit of tidy sweetness. I’m more of a crumbler than a squeezer. Turrón is an Arabic confection made of almonds, sugar, honey, and egg white. Other ingredients such as chocolate are added to create an endless variety of flavors.

Just before dinner we heard King Juan Carlos I’s annual Christmas Eve speech. Keeping with tradition, my family completely ignored him, even though they made sure the TV was on. I watched it more for the sake of this article than to actually hear what he had to say. Sitting in his palace with a Nativity scene to one side and a photo of Spain’s victorious football team to the other, El Rey talked about the economic crisis, the threat of terrorism, and the drug problem. Pretty much the same issues as last year. There was also a Christmas message from Spanish soldiers serving in overseas operations such as the Indian Ocean, Antarctica, Lebanon, and Afghanistan.

Got to run. Soon my 99 year-old neighbor will show up. She’s become my son’s de facto great-grandmother. It’s nice to see someone born in 1911 interacting with someone born in 2005. Meanwhile, my mother-in-law is cooking up a giant Christmas lunch. Yeah, I lucked out in the mother-in-law department.

SkyMall Monday: It’s my first Christmas tree, Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown Christmas Tree SkyMallToday is Cyber Monday. It’s the internet version of Black Friday. What does all this retail marketing speak mean? Well, it’s officially the holiday shopping season (with a special emphasis on the shopping). By now, your Thanksgiving leftovers have begun to spoil and your mind has replaced thoughts of turkey with lists of gifts for family, friends and coworkers. With so much emphasis on shopping, it’s easy to forget what the holidays are really about: togetherness, appreciation and, of course, fruit cake. You might find it odd for a snarky, sarcastic travel writer who was raised Jewish and then became agnostic to wax poetic about the holiday season when he’s supposed to be writing about SkyMall, but hear me out. Here in the SkyMall Monday headquarters, we just set up our Christmas tree. I love this tree. It has its origins in all the things that make this time of year so special: family, SkyMall and Charlie Brown. This week is a little bit different for SkyMall Monday. Rather than simply reviewing a product, I’d like to share with you my story of the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.As I mentioned above, I was raised Jewish. We were not a very observant family. Bacon cheeseburgers were enjoyed often and we only saw the inside of a synagogue when we were summoned to attend a bar mitzvah (including, oddly, my own) or a wedding. Sure, we’d light the menorah on Chanukah, but my extended family would gather at my aunt and uncle’s house for their annual holiday party on Christmas Eve. My aunt was Catholic, so it made sense. Also, no one had work the next day. Few offices tend to close for Chanukah and the adults usually enjoyed a fair amount of eggnog wine. My sister and I would receive our gifts on Christmas morning. Why? Well, probably so we could experience that special joy along with all the other kids around the world.

Over the years, my family evolved. My parents divorced, my father remarried and we all stopped attending my aunt and uncle’s holiday party because, well, that’s what happens with families. The holidays became far less formal. Now, I visit with my mother to exchange gifts and spoil my nieces with toys. I go to my father and stepmother’s home for dinner and exchange more gifts. All of these gatherings are done on arbitrary days selected only because everyone’s schedule is free. There’s no dressing up. No huge gatherings. Just immediate family, a new generation of children and lots of laughter. In my mind, things have improved. I’m with the people I love the most and get to spend Christmas Day in Chinatown stuffing my face.

My stepmother was raised Catholic and, as such, she and my father have a Christmas tree every year. She’s about as Catholic as we are Jewish, though, so there’s no nativity scene to be found in their house. Just plenty of holiday music and that great big tree. I’ve always cherished having that tree there. Not because it’s a symbol of Christmas or houses all of our gifts. I enjoy it simply because it means, after another long year, the people I love are together again.

Bigfoot Yeti Holiday Ornament SkyMall Christmas TreeLast year, under that very tree, was an oddly shaped, awkwardly wrapped box bearing my name. It was long, three-sided and strangely light for its size. When the time came to open our gifts, I immediately attacked that mystery package. Upon opening it, I was delighted. I was 30-years-old at the time, but easily could have been three based on my reaction. There, in my very secular hands, was a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.

That’s the very same tree that I set up this morning. The picture you see above? I took that five minutes before sitting down to write this. It’s not the musical version sold on SkyMall. The catalog used to sell the silent model that my father and stepmother bought for me but, like all things these days, even the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree has received a technological upgrade. I, however, prefer my simple tree.

It’s not really a celebration of Christmas. It’s certainly not a rejection of Chanukah or Judaism. It’s a reminder of what’s important. As you begin your holiday shopping, try to maintain some perspective about why this time of year is so special. Whatever your traditions may be, no matter how annoying your holiday travels are and regardless of your religious affiliation (including those who don’t have one at all), remember that this time of year is about family, giving thanks and Bigfoot Holiday Yeti Ornaments.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.

Top 10 holiday sights to see at Walt Disney World

Walt Disney World is known for building theme parks and resorts that are larger than life. So it should come as no surprise that Disney goes all out during the holidays. It’s enough to have anyone humming “White Christmas,” even if it is 80 degrees outside.

Many of the holiday festivities start this week at Walt Disney World – yes, Disney skips directly from Halloween to Christmas. Here are my Top 10 sights to see at Walt Disney World during a November or December visit:

Snow on Main Street U.S.A.
It only gets cold enough for a flurry every few years in Orlando, but you can see snow at the Magic Kingdom on select nights each November or December. The flakes fall during Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, a special event that includes a holiday parade, Christmas fireworks and treat stations dispensing free hot chocolate and cookies.

The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights
Millions of lights twinkle in time with holiday music during this dazzling presentation at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Entire buildings are covered in lights, and more lights form Santa and his reindeer and other familiar favorites. The shows happen nightly after dark in the park’s Streets of America section.

Minnie’s Christmas cookie parade float
Minnie Mouse’s float in Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade delights the eyes with giant Christmas cookies and candy. But this “must-see” is a “must-smell,” too. Be sure to get a whiff of the cinnamon scent the float emits as it rolls by during this afternoon parade at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Santas with an international flair

In Epcot, the World Showcase pavilions show off traditional décor – and traditional jolly old elves — from their home countries each holiday season. Don’t miss a visit with Pere Noel in France or Father Christmas in the United Kingdom.

Stars on parade
The Walt Disney World parade shown on TV each Christmas Day is actually taped during a few days in early December, and Disney recruits members of the public and park visitors to be part of the audience for the taping. The 2009 parade audiences were treated to musical performances by stars including Kris Allen, Yanni and Nick Cannon. This year’s tapings are scheduled for Dec. 3 and 4.

Giant gingerbread
Disney’s pastry chefs work overtime during the holidays, creating larger-than-life masterpieces that are amazingly edible. Take a tour of the resorts to see their handiwork: a gingerbread carousel with chocolate horses spins at Disney’s Beach Club, toy soldiers guard the perimeter of a gingerbread gazebo at Disney’s Boardwalk Inn, and a 17-foot gingerbread tree towers over the fourth floor of Disney’s Contemporary Resort. If all that gingerbread sharpens your sweet tooth, stop by the life-sized gingerbread house at Disney’s Grand Floridian, which doubles as a bake shop selling cookies, peppermint bark and – you guessed it – gingerbread.

Towering wilderness
While Walt Disney World is home to more than 700 Christmas trees each December, the beauty at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is a consistent favorite of Disney visitors. Shooting up more than 60 feet in the center of the lodge’s lobby, the Christmas tree is adorned with 60,000 lights and décor that suits the national park theming of the resort, including ornaments made from antlers. In fact, Disney’s Imagineers designed the Wilderness Lodge lobby with Christmas in mind, even installing power outlets in the floor where they would be needed for the tree.

Christmas-y campsites
While Walt Disney World decorators string more than 8 million Christmas lights around the resort, guests at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground also get on the action. It has become an annual tradition for many families to camp at Walt Disney World during the Christmas holidays, and they bring their celebrations – and their decorations – with them. Take a spin through the campground after dark to see the creative ways these Disney visitors light up their tents and RVs.

Cinderella’s Holiday Wish
Each night at dusk, Cinderella appears on stage at the Magic Kingdom to ask for a special holiday wish. With a wave of her Fairy Godmother’s magic wand, the princess’s castle is lit up with sparkling holiday lights. The glittering castle makes a great back-drop for a family photo.

Surprising treats
Holiday surprises also abound at Walt Disney World’s restaurants. Keep your eye out for special holiday menu items, such as chocolate Mickey waffles on the Crystal Palace breakfast buffet or a frozen Dole Whip dessert colored a Christmas green at Disney’s Polynesian Resort.

[Image credit (gingerbread house): Flickr user M. Keefe]

Five hotel holiday deals in New England

Are you looking for a winter wonderland for the Christmas season? New England is a natural destination. There are plenty of deals to be found, with packages that won’t force you to choose between your trip and the number of presents under the tree. Check out the inns below from New England Inns and Resorts to see for yourself what await!

1. The Stepping Stone Spa, Lyndonville, VT
The Kingdom Trails Winter Adventure package at The Stepping Stone includes two nights at this bed and breakfast, daily breakfast, two adult tickets for snowshoeing or cross country skiing at Kingdom Trails and a $50 voucher for dinner at Jupiter’s Restaurant. Rates start at $157 per person, based on double occupancy, and the deal runs from December 17, 2010 to March 20, 2011.

2. The Wentworth, Jackson, NH
Take a look at this property for the Jingle Bells Chocolate Tour. For a rate that starts at $208, you’ll pick up a night at the Wentworth, an hour-long sleigh ride through Jackson Village (with actual jingle bells and chocolate snacks), a four-course candlelit dinner for two and a full breakfast the next morning. The deal runs from November 27, 2010 to December 18, 2010.3. Cranwell Resort, Spa and Golf Club, Lexington, MA Feeling the urge to hit the slopes before the end of the year? Check out the Berkshire Ski package at this property. For $140 per person midweek or $185 on the weekends, you can score a night at Cranwell Resort, unlimited cross country skiing, a $20 credit at any Cranwell restaurant and full use of the spa. The deal runs from December 1, 2010 to March 31, 2011.

4. The Beachmere Inn, Ogunquit, ME
Ring in the new year at the Beachmere. The New Year’s Eve by the Sea package is pulled together to make the last night of 2010 memorable. The last dinner you’ll have this year includes appetizers, buffet and dessert, not to mention dancing and party favors. Start fresh with a lavish breakfast the next morning. Two-night packages range from $530 to $595, with three nights ranging from $625 to $675.

5. Inn at Ormsby Hill, Manchester, VT
Visit the Inn at Ormsby Hill on the first two Saturdays in December for open tours of the inns in the Manchester area. Stay either the night of December 3, 2010 or December 10, 2010, and receive dinner in the evening, followed by a performance of “A Christmas Carol” at The Dorset Theatre. Open house tours run from noon to 4 PM the next day, with the $15 ticket price going to Habitat for Humanity. On your way home, you’ll have the chance to stop by a local nursery and pick up a Vermont Christmas tree to bring home!