It’s still Christmas in Spain!

Spain, spain, roscon, Christmas, christmasWell, Epiphany actually, but in Spain this is when we give presents. Christmas in Spain is a time for big meals and family fun, as well as church services for those who are so inclined. Santa passes Spain by to deal with the Anglo and Germanic countries, and Japan from what I hear. Spanish children wait for Los Reyes, the Three Kings, who come on their camels bearing gifts for good little boys and girls just like they did with Jesus all those years back.

The night before, it’s traditional to eat roscón de Reyes, the tasty donut-like creation seen here. This year my wife Almudena took some time off from astronomy to bake her very first roscón. It came out great. As usual, we ate it over at my 99 year-old neighbor’s place, and my wife’s roscón was better than the store-bought one she provided. Roscón is typically eaten with chocolate, hot chocolate. Now this isn’t your wimpy American cocoa; it’s a big chocolate bar melted down and served in tea cups! Perfect for dipping your roscón into.

Every roscón comes with a secret toy surprise baked somewhere inside. If you get it in your slice you have good luck for the rest of the year. I got the toy from the store-bought one, and my son Julián got the one from my wife’s roscón. Some mothers mark the spot where the toy is and make sure their kid gets that piece. I can neither confirm nor deny that Almudena did that.

Another tradition on January 5 is the Cabalgata de Reyes, a big parade where the Three Kings pass through town accompanied by their friends. Check out the video below to see this year’s parade in Madrid. After the parade the kids go to sleep, setting a shoe out for the Kings to leave the gifts next to. They also leave supplies for the hungry Kings and their camels. Julián left out peanuts for the camels and Baileys for the Kings. Remarkably, it was all gone the next morning! I thought of making a trail of peanut shells leading from Julián’s bed to his presents, but decided that would be a bit creepy.

The morning of January 6 is just like Christmas morning in other countries. The kids are up and out of bed early to see what those magical home invaders have brought. Since Julián was a good boy he got everything he asked for in his letter to the Kings. This was easy because he only requested four things. Ah, the advantages of not having a television! In fact, he got more than he asked for.

Now we’re off to my mother-in-law’s house because the Kings stopped there too. I have a shoe sitting in her living room and I’m dying to know what’s next to it. Although we did our shopping last minute (some traditions are universal), we made sure every shoe was well stocked. A few years back we got our elderly neighbor a Furby, which she still has and loves. Yeah, we all made fun of those things when they came out, but imagine how amazing a Furby is to someone born in 1911.

¡¡¡Felices Reyes!!!

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.

Christmas in Spain

¡Feliz Navidad!

Spaniards are big into Christmas. The eating, the gift giving, the shopping craziness, it’s all here with a distinctly Spanish twist.

Hold off on the presents

The day for gift giving isn’t Christmas, but Epiphany on January 6. Christmas Eve isn’t a time for anticipating what’s under the tree but for sitting with the family chowing down heaps of good food while ignoring the king’s annual speech on television. Epiphany is the chance for another Big Feed. Spaniards don’t really need an excuse to have a giant dinner with all the family!
Shopping continues right into early January. After Epiphany there are Las Rebajas (“The Sales”) when stores try to get rid of their excess stock. Spaniards wanting to save money can give a notice that they’re going to buy someone something, and then buy it when the big sales come. This year many shops have started Las Rebajas early because of La Crisis. I’ll let you translate that one for yourself.

Los Reyes Magos, not Santa

Santa is known here, of course, and you see lots of inflatable Santas hanging from people’s windows, but he takes second place to the The Three Kings or Wise Men. Gaspar, Melchor, and Baltasar showed up on Epiphany to give gifts to the baby Jesus. Every year they fly into Madrid and other cities to much pomp and ceremony and go on a big parade through town.
Baltasar, the African king, is the kid’s favorite. You see him and his buddies hanging out in department stores taking requests from excited children, and kids send lists of toys to them like American kids do with Santa. Baltasar used to be played by Spaniards in blackface, something that doesn’t have the cultural baggage here that it does in the United States, although I still haven’t gotten used to seeing it! Luckily the influx of African immigrants in the past few years has provided a ready supply of real Africans to play the favorite Wise Man.
On the night of January 5 people put one of their shoes in the living room for the kings to place presents next to. It’s also nice to leave out some milk and cookies for the Kings’ camels. They have to walk all around Spain in one night and they get hungry.

%Gallery-80910%Bethlehem, not Christmas trees

Because the Wise Men are so popular there’s a long tradition of making dioramas showing them coming to see the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, Belén in Spanish. They’re called Belénes and can get quite elaborate, with entire towns containing hundreds of figures. Check out the gallery for some examples. Many private homes have a Belén and shops often put them in their windows. A pharmacy near my apartment has the best in my barrio. It fills the entire front window and takes a couple of days to set up.
Christmas trees, originally a German tradition, have never been big here. Considering the size of most Spanish apartments you couldn’t have a very impressive tree anyway! Besides, if you had a big tree there would be no room for a Belén.
Check out the gallery for some fine examples of Spanish Belénes and others from around the world, featured in an exhibition by Caja Duero on until January 10 in Madrid.

El Gordo

There’s also the big national Christmas lottery called “El Gordo”. The grand prize always runs into the millions of euros and there are lots of smaller prizes to tempt people who don’t understand statistics into playing again and again. There are so many winning numbers that the drawing takes most of the day. The numbers are sung out by schoolchildren on TV and radio and their high-pitched sing-song recitation of the numbers is one of the sounds of Christmas here.

So what about Spanish New Year? One distinct custom is that as the clock starts striking twelve you have to eat a dozen grapes before it finishes. That’s harder than you think. Other than that people hit the town, drink a lot, and make out with people they probably shouldn’t. Some traditions are universal.