Wintertime is probably one of the most nostalgic times of the year, and it can be especially tough if you’re away from home for the first (oh, who am I kidding, even the third) time. Maybe you’re one of those people who counts down to Thanksgiving so you can start listening to Christmas music and decorate your tree. Or it’s your first Hannukah away from family and friends in a country that has a minuscule Jewish population. Any way you look at it, its really hard being away during the familiar and familial season.
My first Christmas away from home I spent in the suburbs of Madrid with a friend who was actually an old camper of mine. Her family was extremely welcoming but the unfamiliarity of the celebrations was a little jarring ’cause I really had no idea what to expect and I felt like such an intruder!
My Christmas eves were always spent at a family friend’s house eating linguini with clam sauce and fried calamari. It was a pretty small event, with the kids watching Christmas movies in the living room next to the fireplace and the adults getting sloshed in the dining room. My sister and I actually always dreaded going to the Christmas eve shindig because we didn’t like the people who went, and since we only saw them once a year they were strangers each time we met. But it was our tradition. It was familiar. It was Christmas.
The next morning we’d get up early (but later and later as we grew older), put on the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and dump out our stockings which always contained a chocolate orange and a real one, along with a toothbrush and other miscellaneous goodies. After my mom passed away in 2000, my dad, sister and I worked hard to keep our Christmas traditions going; to keep some normalcy. Some years felt almost normal, and others we barely got the tree up in time for Christmas and our presents were given to us in a white garbage bag. Either way, we’d gather up our stuff after lunch and head over to my gramma or aunt’s house for Christmas dinner. After dinner and stuffing ourselves with my gramma’s delicious Christmas cookies (recipe coming soon!) we’d all gather in the living room to do gifts. We always opened presents youngest to oldest so that everyone could see the looks on the faces of each kid as he opened his gifts. Of course this meant that I was always last because I am the oldest of all of the cousins, but that was our tradition and we stuck to it.
So like I said, even though my Christmases weren’t always perfect, they were familiar and they were mine. Spending that first Christmas in Spain, I let myself be led through the motions, not knowing any of my friend’s family’s traditions. Now going on my third Christmas in Spain, I’ve got a pretty good idea of how things go, and now that I’ve got my boyfriend’s family here it’s even beginning to feel like Christmas without the clam sauce and my family here.
So here’s how it goes down.
In late November or early December, big christmas light displays will go up on the main streets of most towns. This is one of my favorite parts of Christmas in Europe because it’s so festive and where I come from we never had anything like it. During the cold evenings you’ll find locals quite literally roasting chestnuts on an open fire out in the streets and for just 2 euros you get the perfect snack and the perfect hand warmer.
In bigger cities you may find Christmas markets, and lots of cities and regions have their own wintertime traditions that put everyone in a Christmas mood like the zambombas in Jerez. Now’s the time to start learning villancicos a.k.a. Christmas carols, and keep an eye out for nativity scenes! Spaniards get really elaborate and you can find large (I’m talking room-sized) dioramas called Bélens. The one in “my” town, Arcos de la Frontera, is beautiful, free to enter, and is open all year round. And in case you didn’t know this already, lots of people have the tradition of putting a squatting pooping man somewhere in the belen… a little hidden surprise of sorts.
Arcos is also know for it’s belén viviente, a living Bethlehem scene. The whole old town shuts down and members of the community recreate about 25 scenes from the biblical story, including real animals and a newborn as baby Jesus.
There’s no lack of Christmas spirit in Spain, which definitely makes it easier to spend the holidays here.
Christmas Eve- December 24th
Christmas eve is seemingly even more important than Christmas day here in Spain. The 24th is all about family and food. Most families get together to have hugeeeee dinners; there were probably about 20 people at both dinners I’ve attended. Christmas eve dinner is a time to splurge and the best of foods are eaten, maybe for the only time all year until next Christmas eve! At my first Christmas eve dinner we had seafood and meat galore. Crabs, prawns, cured ham, meat, you name it, we ate it… you get the idea. I was stuffed to the brim. After dinner we bundled up the little kids and took them caroling! I’d actually never gone caroling for real in the US so this was adorable. The idea is that they go caroling for the neighbors and the neighbors give them a couple euros for the performance! After caroling we played Just Dance with the Wii which was exactly something my family would which was really comforting.
My second Christmas eve I met my boyfriend’s family for the first time. I was super nervous because there were going to be about 20 people there, and Paco forced me to make an apple pie which I was terrified these back country Spaniards wouldn’t appreciate. We also ate tons of food at this dinner, fried cuttlefish, prawns, ham, Spanish potato salad, and a million other things. After dinner we went to a friends house in the countryside and partied (literally) until 8:00am (Merry Christmas!) and went home and slept all day.
Christmas Day- December 25th
I’ve experienced two different Christmas days here. Last year, like I said, Christmas was spent sleeping off a hang over all day from the previous night’s party. The year before, when I was in Madrid, was definitely more Christmasy. My friend’s little sisters woke us up early to tell us that Papa Noel had come and that it was time to open presents. It was cute to watch the girls open up their little goodies… but Christmas isn’t the day for big present giving. Some families don’t give any gifts on Christmas or even have a Christmas tree. We’ll get to that later.
The family Papa Noel was generous enough to give my a really nice scarf for Christmas which totally came in handy as the next day I left on my trip to Prague and Istanbul. We had churros for breakfast and later on went into the city to have lunch with the other side of my friend’s family. After so much food and napping on the couch, we headed into the center and I got a personal driving tour of Madrid’s Christmas lights display. We parked, walked around, and ended up at the completely packed Mercado de San Miguel where I was able to force down a chocolate truffle and a lemony cocktail for dinner. It was a really nice day though certainly very different from my typical Christmas.
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s eve is, as in most places, a pretty big deal. Of course all-night parties are part of the deal, but two things about Spanish New Year’s eve stand out to me. The first is that it’s all about family. Spaniards spend midnight with their families ringing in the new year, and then dress up all fancy and head out to party like its 1999. This is pretty different from my experience of New Year’s in the States, where most people go out to parties to watch the ball drop and drink champagne with 10 or 100 of their closest friends while wearing silly hats and goofy glasses. I like the Spanish version because it’s the societal norm to spend time with your family and you know you’re not “missing out” because the party doesn’t start until after 12:00.
The second part of Spanish New Year’s eve that I like is the grape tradition. At the stroke of midnight, everyone stuffs their mouths with a grape every time the bell rings. Thats twelve grapes in like, twelve seconds, and one for good luck, so thirteen in total. I’ve never actually been in Spain for Noche Vieja (Old Night) to try this ritual for myself, but I imagine, and have been told, that it’s good fun to chock your cheeks full of grapes while you giggle in the new year with your loved ones. Just make sure to stock up on grapes well before New Year’s eve (they sell canned ones) because they’ll probably sell out!
Random Fact for girls with Spanish lovers… it’s customary to gift your boy a pair of red underwear to wear on New Years Eve!
The Epiphany- January 6th
This is pretty much an unknown holiday in the States, though if you look at your calendar you’ll see it in small writing on January 6th. While Americans are getting back to the grind after the always-too-short holiday vacation, Spaniards are still waiting on their big holiday of the winter season. The Epiphany, known in Spain as Los Reyes Magos, commemorates the three wise men who brought gifts to baby Jesus. On January 6th, the day is spent with family and gifts are exchanged! Since Santa Clause isn’t really a “thing” in Spain (though it is catching on and some people put up fake christmas trees and everything) the three wise men are the guys who deliver. Though you won’t find them sitting in malls waiting to receive hundreds of crying children on their laps, you can rest assured that all Spanish children are aware that come December, los Reyes are watching them to see if they’re being good… no gifts for naughty kids!
And as quickly as the winter holidays began, they abruptly end as the Christmas lights and plastic trees are packed up and put away until next year, kids head back to school, and the season of sales begins in the retail world.
So, have you ever spent the holidays away from home and without your family? How was it? What made you feel less homesick? I’d love to hear about it!