As a kid, all I wanted for Christmas is that there not be any.
My mother has scolded me for years about my lack of holiday spirit, but I argue that she has not worked in retail, and I am reluctant to put on Christmas tunes for for my six-year-old students.
Although, Spain does it right: Christmas cookies are swapped for lard and olive oil cakes and Santa is a foreign concept. Maybe it is just their strange take on nativity scenes or the lack of snow in my adopted city of Seville, Spain (Vengaaa, I am from Chicago!), however I relish in the holiday season here and the traditions unqiue to Spain.
Ya vienen los Reyes Magos!
My first year in Spain, I was mesmerized by the Christmas season and its refreshing differences to our American version. So mesmerized, in fact, that my blissful stroll down Seville’s thoroughfares left me puzzled. Who were those three tiny men trying to climb in the garritos (wrought-iron fences)?
Why, Santa Claus could never survive in Seville’s heat, thus he sends his friends from the Orient, Los Reyes Magos. Melchor, Gaspar, and Balthazar deliver presents to eager niños all over Spain by way of camel and a huge carroza, or float. Virtually every neighborhood in Seville has their own cabalgata parade, where honorary Reyes Magos (often bullfighters or politicians), don garb from far-off lands and toss candy out to children waiting in the streets. That said, Spanish children do not get their gifts until December 6th and they have to return to school the very next day.
As for Santa Claus? He is ever-present these days, just like Halloween. But you have to admit, riding on camels do deliver gifts is way cooler.
Campanas de Belén
As a kid, my sister and I looked forward to setting up the nativity scene under our enormous (real) Christmas tree. We had a plastic holy family, plastic sheep, and the mule and ox were present.
Except Spaniards do not like that stuff plastic. Businesses, schools, and even the post office spend months putting together a diorama, called a belén, of the most important moments of El Niño Jesús’s life. From running water to lights that fade from day to night and back, these representation are paid for through donations. Sevillanos line up around the block to pass through churches, organizations, and businesses that house miniature Bethlehems and show their children the nativity story. From tiny stables to the Reyes Magos, each diorama is crafted over a period of several months, depending on its size.
In Seville, there is even a Christmas time market that caters to belenes and sells teeny baskets of fruit, horses, and wells. Amongst the most interesting is no doubt the Caganer, a Catalán tradition. Do not be alarmed to see a man squatting and doing his business in the corner of the stable — that is just the pooping man who appears in belenes around the Mediterranean coast of Spain.
Turrones y Mantecados
I live in the land of olive oil. We use it to heat our houses, fry our fish, and flavor our Christmas goodies. Oh, yes, el gran aceituna is the star that tops the Spanish Christmas Cookie Tree. Any trip to the supermarket and you are srrounded by brightly packaged bonbones, turrones, mantecados, polverones, and not a gingerbread man in sight.
Just a little field guide: bonbones are anything that comes in a red box, usually in 88-ct. from Nestlé. Turrón is a nougaty mass of sugar, toasted almonds, and honey, typically from the Eastern regions. They come in all varieties, as well as qualities, but the Rey de los Turrones is no doubt Souchard. Mantecados and polvorones are pig lard and glazed sugar with cinnamon, chocolate, or lemon. I gorged myself on these during my first Chirstmas in Spain, as they are actually tasty, but now only eat them when I have nothing else in the house.
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
Speaking of food, one of my favorite wintertime snacks are chestnuts. During the late fall, the seeds, encased in a fuzzy slipper until harvested, become a staple of the Sevillano diet, providing nourishment during long shopping hours or sightseeing around the historic center. On nearly every street corner and square, grubby salesman wheel rickety carts with plastic contraptions used to roast the chestnuts over, you guessed it, an open fire. Most cartuchos will only put you back a euro or two, and they are great for munching on while window shopping or belén-hopping.
And when all of your money has been spent on mantecados and gifts from the Reyes Magos, Spain comes to the rescue by way of a choir of kids who sing lottery numbers weekly. Started as a social integration program for the blind, ONCE now runs a lottery system that has Spaniards running to their nearest lottery stand to buy in. This year’s Christmas drawing, El Gordo, or The Big One as it is known, is set at over 2.5 billion euros this year. Spaniards buy decimos, or a group of 10 tickets and hope to have their number drawn on December 22nd. While tickets are pricey at 20 euros, most religious fraternities and sports organizations also hold 50-50 raffles as fundraisers. I won a measly eight euros a few years back, but for playing 2.50, it was a good return.
Y si no me toca, there is always next year!
Cat Gaa lives and works in Seville, Spain, where she wrangles small children by day and blogs by night for Sunshine and Siestas. Look for her there or on twitter at @sunshinesiestas.