Saturday, 3 December 2011

Christmas in Spain

I moved to Spain ten years ago. I don't know quite what I expected. Sunshine, of course, mountains, sea, beautiful views and wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables. I had learnt Spanish in England before I came out here and thought I was pretty fluent until I realised I couldn't understand a word any of my new neighbours said. This was because they speak with a regional accent which is impenetrable to most other Spanish speakers, never mind poor foreigners like me. And then there is the culture...
Here in the mountain villages little has changed since medieval times. Oh yes, we have televisions and cars and mobile phones, but they have been sort of added on to the existing way of life, a thin veneer over the old ways. It is not unusual to see a young peasant farmer talking into his phone as he rides his donkey, laden with vine cuttings, along the winding tracks.
Spain is a Catholic country. We are not talking about modern, erudite Catholicism here. This is the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, closely linked to the agricultural cycle. Colourful, exuberant, full of life.
Christmas here, until very recently, had nothing to do with Santa Claus. Here it is the three kings who bring the presents, and they don't bring them on Christmas Eve, they bring them on 5th January, the eve of epiphany, traditionally the day when the three kings brought the gifts to the baby Jesus.
Our Christmas season begins with a wonderful nativity play in the village of Almayate.
Every year the entire village takes part in this event which is held in the school sports field. An entire scene of ancient Israel is re-created, with live cattle, sheep, goats, hens, etc.
The evening performance is particularly spectacular as the scene is lit with bonfires and one by one little cameo scenes are lit up with spotlights to reveal the angel announcing the coming birth to Mary, or Herod interviewing the three kings.
The story goes that there is tremendous competition in the village to produce a baby at the right time to play the infant Jesus.

Christmas day itself is not particularly exciting. There are, of course, no presents yet. Generally, the family goes out for lunch in one of the numerous county inns which seem to exist solely for the purpose of providing enormous Sunday and holiday meals. We are talking about the whole family here, mother, father, children, grandparents, uncles, aunties, cousins. Traditionally, there is a lot of fish in the Christmas lunch menu. Not a turkey, Christmas pudding or mince pie in sight.

New Year is far more important. The whole village gathers in the village square in front of the church and everyone is given a glass of sparkling wine and a party bag with a hat, streamers, squeakers, sweets (candy) and, most importantly, twelve grapes. As the church bells chime midnight, you have to eat a grape for each chime. It is surprisingly difficult to manage this. You end up with a mouthful of unchewed grapes and often still a couple left in the bag. It's supposed to be lucky for the year ahead if you can eat them all in time. Last year was the first time I managed it and in March my first book was accepted for publication. So there you are. I'm getting into practice right now to get it right again this year. It would be really nice to sell some books. Sorry, I digress.

The climax for the children is Los Reyes – The Kings. In the early evening of 5
th January, the three kings come riding into the village on their donkeys, each accompanied by a servant. Sometimes Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and an assortment of angels come too. It rather depends how many people are available. The procession winds its way up and down all the village streets and as it goes the kings throw sweets into the crowd. Eventually it arrives at the village square and the kings dismount and sit on the steps ready to give out presents to the waiting children. Every child has a present with his or her name written on it and the kings' servants read out the names one by one.
Later in the night when everybody is in bed, the kings visit every house and leave even more presents. In the olden days each child would leave a shoe outside the bedroom door and the kings would put the present in the shoe. Now, I suspect nobody would have shoes large enough to contain the dozens of gifts each child receives.

The children don't have much time to play with their presents before they have to go back to school, but at least they don't have long to wait for the next holiday – San Anton and the blessing of the animals. But that is a story for another day. 
Jenny Twist was born in York and brought up in the West Yorkshire mill town of Heckmondwike, the eldest grandchild of a huge extended family.
She left school at fifteen and went to work in an asbestos factory. After working in various jobs, including bacon-packer and escapologist’s assistant, she returned to full-time education and did a BA in history at Manchester and post-graduate studies at Oxford.
She stayed in Oxford working as a recruitment consultant for many years and it was there that she met and married her husband, Vic.
In 2001 they retired and moved to Southern Spain where they live with their rather eccentric dog and cat
Her first book, Take One At Bedtime, was published in April 2011 and the second, Domingo’s Angel, was published in July 2011. Her novella, Doppelganger, was published in the anthology Curious Hearts in July 2011, Uncle Vernon, was published in Spellbound, in September 2011, Jamey and the Alien and Uncle Albert's Christmas will be published in Warm Christmas Wishes in November 2011 and Mantequero will be published in December 2011 in the anthology Winter Wonders.
Excerpt from Jamey and the Alien
A Story in the Anthology Warm Christmas Wishes

That night Jamey dreamt he was talking to Santa Claus. Santa Claus didn't look like he did in all the pictures of him. He was wearing a cloak, but it was a sort of brownie-green, not red, and he wasn't wearing a red hat with a white bobble at the end. He was wearing a hat made of twigs and leaves, and there were leaves in his beard as well.
Jamey told him all about the alien in Daddy's head and Santa Claus listened and nodded wisely. However, when Jamey told him about Daddy being in the hospital, Santa Claus looked confused and Jamey had to explain what a hospital was. Surely, he ought to know about hospitals. Didn't he bring presents to the children in the hospital? But Santa Claus shook his head. “I can only go where I am invited,” he said.
Jamey didn't properly understand this, but he explained as best he could what a hospital was, where it was, and what it looked like. Santa Claus took hold of both Jamey's hands and he said, “I'll do my best, Jamey.”
 For more about my stories, go to:


Lindsay Townsend said...

Fascinating blog, Jenny! I love the custom of the kings with presents and the shoe!

Hywela Lyn said...

What an intersting post, Jenny. I'd never heard of the tradition of the three Kings before - fits in with the 'real' story of Christmas rather better than Santa Klaus, I think.I love hearing about Christmas traditions in other countries and really enjoyed this.

Kaye Manro said...

Very interesting, Jenny. So it sounds like you may do a little SF writing, since your title has alien in it!

Savanna Kougar said...

Jenny, thanks for sharing about this holiday tradition. It sounds wonderful and more real in meaning than how the holiday is often celebrated here.

Jenny Twist said...

Thank you,Lindsay, Hywela, Kaye and Savanna. I'm so glad you enjoyed it.
I do write some SciFi, Kaye, but not of the straightforward, space fiction variety. Mine is more likely to be about time travel, alternative dimensions or supernatural powers. Jamey and the Alien is about a supernatural being who may or may not be Santa Claus.

Nora Weston said...

Hi, Jenny! Another marvelous post...your life is very interesting. No wonder your stories are too! Happy holidays. :)

Jenny Twist said...

That's such a nice thing to say, Nora. You are such a good friend. Thank you