Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Christmas in Spain

My success as a flamenco dancer not only opened up a new world for me, but gave me some immediate access to what Christmas means in Spain.  The villancicos I learned were haunting, beautiful, and at times funny, and Tia and Sasha both added songs to our repertoire that they had learned at school.  Here’s one of my newest favorites:  By the Gipsy Kings, and here's a more traditional version:
Puerto’s Christmas lights turned its streets into an enchanting wonderland—when they were on!  Only Thursday through Saturday, 8 pm to about 11 pm (due to Spain’s financial crisis??) did the lights come on and create a magical panorama.  It was a perfect place to share with our family:  Nana and Grandpa Rich came to visit, along with Aunt Suzi, Uncle Ethan, and cousins Griffin and Adrian, so our house was full to capacity!  Our attic apartment came in extremely handy, and showed itself capable of being an excellent guest suite.   
Wilding in the streets
Christmas trees were hard to come by.  We finally found a little Charlie-Brown-type tree to hang our ornaments on. They are not traditional for the holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus—instead, there are intricate displays of belénes, the nativity scenes from Bethlehem (Belén).  In Puerto a whole building’s bottom floor was dedicated to 50 or more small dioramas depicting various scenes from the Bible and ancient Israel 2000 years ago, and every school had a field trip to come visit.  In Arcos de la Frontera, a nearby “pueblo blanco,” they had a nativity scene with people playing the parts, a sort of living belén.  
Belén Viviente en Arcos de la Frontera
Nuestra pequeña arbol de Navidad
Another relatively new tradition to Spain is the concept of Papá Noel, or Father Christmas (aka Santa Claus).  Slowly he is showing up alongside (but not replacing) the traditional gift-bringers:  Los Reyes Magos, or the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to Jesus in Bethlehem.  Because there was no mode of high-speed travel back then, it took los Reyes Magos nearly two weeks to follow the star and find Jesus tucked away in his manger, where they presented him with frankincense, gold, and myrrh.  Poor Spanish kids—they have to wait until January 6th, when the kings finally made it to Bethlehem, to get their presents!   At the girls’ Catholic school, my jewish brother-in-law Ethan somehow got cajoled into playing one of these Arabian wise men, bringing home the confluence of cultures in Spain.
A Jewish Arabian Wise King in a Catholic School
A Wise Man Madrileño
Christmas eve was spent with the ten of us at home, singing both our old standards plus some of the new songs we’d learned, the kids reveling in the presents Nana and Grandpa Rich and Aunt Suzi had brought from California (a whole suitcase full!!)  We had a magnificent Spanish feast: jamón iberico bellota along with queso payoyo, gazpacho, and a huge pan of paella, complete with shrimp, mussels, and marinated chicken, with Grandpa Rich’s homemade flan for dessert.  Tia, Sasha, Griffin and Adrian performed their annual play, this time acting out the song “We Three Kings” (most appropriate!) and taking part for the first time in reading in turns the story of the birth of Jesus.
Steph's paella
Three Wise Kids and Baby Jesús
Nana and Grandpa Rich left after Chrismas, but Suz and Ethan and the boys stayed on through New Year’s, with another whole new set of traditions for us to learn.  Having heard about it from our Mexican friends in California, we dutifully bought grapes and divided them into 10 piles of 12 (having invited our friends Sharon and Guidón to celebrate with us).  Dialing up a Spanish radio station, we waited for the chimes of midnight, everyone stuffing another grape into their mouth at each clang of the cathedral bell.  After some celebratory champagne for everyone, we tucked the kids into bed and left them with babysitters Suz and Ethan as the four of us—Todd, Steph, Sharon, and Guidón-- headed back out into the streets of Puerto. 
¡12 ubas!
We had walked home from dinner through the streets of Puerto at 11:30 pm with nary a person in sight, an odd experience for us as we were used to seeing the bars packed and the streets full in the run-up to midnight—but not only was no one out, but most of the bars were shut down tight.  “Everyone is at home celebrating with family!” Sharon explained to me.  “Apparently they’ll be out later.”  Right…we left our house at 1:30 in the morning, with the bars just opening.  We joined a moderately busy bar, Kapote’s, for a drink as more and more people streamed in, the men mostly in jacket and tie, the women in a sort of New Year’s Eve uniform of tight short skirt, light tights, and ridiculously high stiletto heels (we were definitely underdressed).  By the time we cried uncle at 3:30 am and turned for home, we had to squeeze through the crush of people and were amazed at the craziness in the streets—packed full with revelers.  At noon the next day you could still see party-goers emerging from the bars, blinking in the bright sunlight and looking tipsily bewildered that the day was halfway done.
¡Feliz Año Nuevo!
And so goes our education about all things Spanish.  In this new year 2012, we are grateful for our family and the extended time we had to show them our new home and  travel with them (Granada and Madrid, subject of the next post!), grateful for our friends at home who hopefully got our card!, and grateful for our new friends here in Puerto.  ¡Viva España, y Feliz Año Nuevo 2012!

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