Part of the expat experience is learning about the differences in shared traditions. Christmas is celebrated by most of Europe and both the English and Spanish-speaking worlds, so you would think that our traditions would be the same, wouldn’t you? Not so. Writer Linda Wainwright shares Christmas and holiday traditions on the Canary Islands.
By Linda Wainwright
When I arrived in the Canary Islands, I had two small children, so this was a very important time of year. Back then, preparations for the festival here were very muted. It was impossible to plan as much in advance as I was used to doing, as the shops boasted nothing Christmas-ey until a couple of weeks before December 25th. That’s something that has changed in my time here. Even so, little happens before December 1st, when overnight it seems, fairy lights appear in every town and village, and turrón appears on every supermarket shelf. Turrón, like mince pies in the UK, is a special holiday sweet treat. Traditionally made from almonds, there are now versions in chocolate and just about every other sugary temptation you can imagine – but only at this time of year.
Most importantly, every town and village also has its belen, (nativity scene or crib). These are much more important than a mere part of the decorations, not only churches and town halls create them, but businesses from banks to post offices clear a space to create one, however small. Some are entire model villages, representing all aspects of life, complete with el caganer (the unfortunate citizen caught with his pants down, attending to the needs of nature!). Here in the Canary Islands many have a local theme, so that the models are typical Canarian dwellings and the miniature folk are in traditional costume.
Christmas Eve in England had meant pubs and bars full of goodwill and cheer, followed by deserted streets the next day. I was surprised to find it opposite in Spain. Although office workers may meet for a drink or two at lunchtime, by 2pm towns and cities empty as everyone heads home, or takes a siesta before the huge family get-together that evening. Even restaurants and supermarkets in resort areas in the Canary Islands, which are normally “open all hours,” close early – even though they may be open the next day.
Christmas Eve is the mother-of-all-feasts, and one of the few times I’ve literally not been able to force down another mouthful, as dishes still kept appearing on the festive table. Arriving at my first Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) dinner and seeing a low table groaning with Serrano ham, olives, cheeses, black puddings, and other goodies I stuck in with gusto, expecting that this was a buffet. Not so, these were just the appetizers! After about an hour we were called to the dining room, where starters of seafood and fish awaited, followed by an aromatic roast beef and trimmings such as I’d never seen with this traditionally English dish! – and don’t get me started on the desserts; of which I actually remember little, having to force them down in an attempt not to offend my hostess!
Christmas Day itself is, basically, a recovery from the indulgence. People spill onto the streets in attempts to walk or run or swim off the excesses of the feasting, or just to sit in a pavement café and compare notes about what had been consumed the night before.
What about the presents? you may ask. Present exchange still isn’t as common as in the US or England, Spanish kids get their presents not from Santa Claus, but from the Three Kings, a commemoration of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh brought by the Kings, or Wise Men, to the Christ Child. This tradition separates the different aspects of the festival in a rather nice way. It leaves Christmas Eve and the day itself for religious and family events, and tags on the more commercialized side, the gift giving, at the end of the holiday. Adults often don’t exchange gifts, despite the urgings of the perfume and electronics industries seen nightly on our TV screens.
Between December 26th and 31st it’s pretty much business as usual here – none of the week-long or two-week-long breaks I was used to. New Year’s Eve is very much the same as it is the world-over, parties (often formal, the only time of the year when one “dresses up”), fireworks and cava (the sparkling white wine which is Spain’s answer to champagne).
Then it’s back to business until the night of January 5th. This is the magical night, when three, mysterious, elaborately-clad gentleman arrive in town, often on camels, sometimes on horseback or by boat, and most impressively by helicopter, touching down in Santa Cruz’s football stadium. The subsequent parade through town is equal to Carnival or Macy’s Thanksgiving Day in style and glamor, if not in size. Local businesses sponsor floats, Disney and cartoon characters feature hugely, and children scramble the sidewalks for the candies thrown from the trucks. In my experience over-zealous grandmothers have also been known to poke the odd umbrella into the competition to score the most candy or the best spot!
High on their sugar treats, the kids return home to pretend to sleep, but not before putting out their shoes (as opposed to stockings) for their hoped-for gifts, and some wheat or barley for those magic camels (mince pies and milk don’t cut it with the Kings). January 6th is a national holiday, and it’s a treat to go to a park or seaside promenade and watch proud parents trail after their offspring, who race their new bikes, skates or kiddie cars; or see them steer them through the crowds as carefully as the kids themselves steer their remote control cars.
Most will stop at the pasteleria (cake shop) to buy roscón, a traditional pastry ring filled with cream or custard and topped with icing and candied fruit – just in case, you understand, they hadn’t eaten enough over the holidays!
Over the years, with family grown and dispersed around the world, my own habits have become more Canarian and less English I guess, but it all comes down to the same thing, even if you aren’t of a religious bent, Christmas, however we choose to celebrate it, is a time for families and friends – and I wish you all its happiness and promise, wherever you are.
Linda likes to say that she is “re-inventing herself for her third age” these days. She transplanted to the Canary Islands more than 20 years ago. Now with kids grown up, leaving behind the 9 to 5, she studies writing and photography and is beginning to scratch a living from them, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. She blogs at www.islandmomma.wordpress.com