surinenglish

The delights of a Spanish Christmas

Villancico singers play zambombas and tambourines in a file photo.
Villancico singers play zambombas and tambourines in a file photo. / SUR
  • tradition

  • Has Covid left you stuck on the Costa del Sol this Christmas? Everything has been different from what we expected so far this year, so make the most of the circumstances and discover the sights, sounds and flavours of Navidad - Covid permitting

The festive season is here and, while this year will be very different from others, preparations are well under way for the traditional celebrations.

The coronavirus that has dominated our year, and dictated changes that we could never have imagined 12 months ago, means that some foreign residents will be spending their first Christmas, or Navidad, in Spain.

The delights of a Spanish Christmas

/ SALVADOR SALAS

On the surface, the run-up to the holidays is the same as in much of the Western world. While the extravagance of some previous years has been toned down, Christmas lights now adorn the streets with the usual images: decorated trees, wrapped gifts, Father Christmas, reindeer, bells, stars… Even snowflakes make an appearance among the decorations, perhaps surprisingly for a place with the Costa del Sol’s climate, although weather earlier this month showed that wintry scenes can be found just a few minutes’ drive inland.

Southern Spain, however, has its own Christmas traditions that are worth discovering, especially in a year when many usual family rituals will have to be postponed.

When it happens

"In Spain they have Christmas on 6 January," is something often erroneously said about this country, although for those who see Christmas as being solely about getting presents then it’s about right.

In reality though, the festive season stretches from 24 December to 6 January without losing steam after Christmas Day, as it does in some countries.

With the Three Kings bringing the gifts at Epiphany, the excitement continues throughout the holidays, as does the Christmas shopping atmosphere in town centres and malls.

Christmas Eve is just the start, not the climax, of the celebrations and many concerts and events are usually scheduled to take place right up to 5 December.

As with everything, Covid-19 has interfered with most of the usual activities this year. But the absence of crowds and the need for social distancing has its advantages. A stroll through the Christmas lights of Malaga city centre, for example, is much more pleasant without all the people.

Music

Much of Spain’s Christmas music will sound familiar; Spanish versions of old favourites, from Jingle Bells to Silent Night and Drummer Boy, can be heard in shops and streets.

More traditional festive songs, or ‘villancicos’ hide some unusual lyrics. While most of them are based on the Christmas story theme, you can find the Virgin Mary combing her hair while fish drink in the river in one of them.

Zambombas.

Zambombas. / SUR

Shepherds appear frequently in the lyrics, and the typical dress for carol singers, especially children, is as ‘pastores’.

There are several instruments that are essential for Spanish carol singing. Perhaps the most important is the tambourine, and the most interesting is the zambomba. Basically a hollow cylinder, often a ceramic pot, is closed tightly with a patch stretched over the opening and a stick pushed through the middle. The unusual sound is made through friction when the stick is rubbed with a wet hand.

Zambomba is also the name used for a festive season party, especially in Jerez, involving the instrument among many more. Flamenco and Christmas go hand in hand.

The most fun Christmas instrument, however, is the ‘anís’ bottle. Obviously only the traditional brands that use the uneven bottles will do and they can be played with a spoon, a key or anything else to hand.

Christmas food

As anywhere,a Spanish Christmas involves forgetting about the waistline for a few days.

It’s the perfect time for those with a sweet tooth, as even as early as October the shops start stocking ‘mantecados’ - crumbly cakes that come in a variety of flavours.

Turrón.

Turrón. / SUR

‘Turrón’ is probably the star of Christmas sweets. The original types, which come in the form of a bar, involve almonds in some shape or form, either ground up in the soft version or whole in the hard nougat-style version.

The name ‘turrón’ is however used for a range of similarly shaped bars, made with anything from chocolate to crystallised fruit.

As in many other European countries the main family Christmas dinner is on the night of 24 December. There’s no fixed menu, but the meal has to include the best delicacies the family can afford.

It’s the time of year to splash out on the more expensive cured ham and shellfish that would not be seen in the house during the rest of the year.

More dishes come out at lunchtime on Christmas Day when the family continues the feast.

The importance of families getting together at Christmas is more than evident this year, as the authorities limit the numbers to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

New Year's Eve

Family dinners on New Year’s Eve are of similar importance a week later. The 1.30am curfew proposed by the central government is designed to prevent the all-night parties that traditionally start some time after midnight.

First the whole family dines together and toasts the New Year after eating 12 grapes at midnight before the young adults, and lucky older teens, head out to their parties.

Again, this year, Covid is guilty of spoiling this year’s ‘cotillón’ gatherings. The usual crowds will not be able to cram into the main squares of cities, towns and villages, to eat their 12 grapes on the 12 strokes of midnight as their local church clock chimes.

The Three Wise Men

The ‘Reyes Magos’ deliver gifts on the night of 5 January but these days they share the job with Father Christmas, or ‘Papa Noel’, who has started dropping in to many households on Christmas Eve.

File photo of a previous year's Kings parade.

File photo of a previous year's Kings parade. / SUR

Nevertheless, due to their important role, people in Spain know the Three Kings (also known as the Three Wise Men or Magi), very well and they are referred to with great familiarity. Every child knows their names are Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar and can easily identify them.

This year the youngsters will not have the usual parades on the evening of 5 January, when the three heroes and their helpers throw sweets into the crowds, but instead, more Covid-friendly events are being organised.

After 6 January, another day of feasting if there’s any good ham left, Christmas can be finally declared to be over.