December is here, and are celebrating Christmas in Spain for the first time. Like anywhere else we have lived, the fiesta is seen and felt far and wide. People elbow their way through the supermarkets with bulging trolleys, prepare meals for a small army and eat and drink far too much. Yet, Christmas in Andalucía is different from anything else we have ever known.
The first concern about Christmas in my native Norway is whether the festive season will be white. Here in southern Spain of course, that is no question. There might be a dusting of snow on some far away mountains, but generally winter means that the hills are covered in camel-coloured velvet. We do have the occasional rain during this part of the year, one just has to hope it won’t happen at Christmas. To be sure, we did a weather consultation with Antonio, a local farmer who at 85 years of age still works in the fields from 6 am every morning. He told us with a toothless smile that it would rain by Christmas Eve, lasting two days. Seeing our disbelief, he pointed up at a wet blotch on the ancient Arab city wall behind him. This spot, he told us, only comes out when there is agua (water) in the air. Apparently it had something to do with the salt deposits in the wall. Regardless, if we were to believe this modern day soothsayer, we should expect rain.
In Canada, where my husband and I lived for many year, Christmas music, or Muzak, will blare out of stores and malls ad nauceum starting just after Halloween, forcing one to be constantly reminded of the upcoming festivities. Hence, by Christmas one is completely fed up by ‘White Christmas, be it the original Bing, or the newer Boublé version. Here in Ronda, most stores have had no Christmas music even days prior to the holiday. The main walking street (La Bola, as the locals call it, named after an alleged huge snow ball that once rolled down this hardly inclined street) has speakers playing Christmas songs, though they cut them off respectfully during siesta time. Besides, they sound more like flamenco music to me.
The main streets of Ronda do have Christmas lights. Most shops have squeezed a Santa, a penguin with a red toque or a few stars in between sausages or sequence dresses in their window display, but it is nothing near what we saw in North America. Step off any commercial street and one would think there is no celebration at all. Be it due to electricity prices, poor economy, or simply tradition, people here have no Christmas lights or decorations outside their homes. One exception is a red banner with a naked baby Jesus, which some will hang from their balconies. A more pagan twist is hanging a rope off your balcony with an escaping Santa, or as a variation on this theme, a fleeing holy three kings on a rope. Most certainly ‘Made in China’, these dolls are in some way so uniquely Spanish.
The rondeños do celebrate Christmas, both the 24 and more so January 6, or el Día de los Reyes. Our neighbor showed us her nativity scene, which covered half her living room and according to her lacked all but moving parts. Every house, church, store, religious brotherhood and even bar have the stable-scene on display. Traditionally, Joseph, Maria, shepherds, kings (before escaping…) and animals are all there, while the miniature baby Jesus will be added on the night of Christmas Eve.
The most curious Christmas tradition I have witnessed to date is the ‘Christmas minibar’ with various liqueurs and mantecado cookies which businesses will set up for their clients. I first noticed this amicable tradition in the dealership where we bought our car last Christmas. This December we had to renew our car insurance, and there in this most responsible insurance office we saw the festive minibar again. Yesterday I also noted it in our hardware store (where they sell the before-mentioned ‘holy three kings on a rope’, should anyone be interested), just beneath the pocketknife stand. Nothing like a good cheer before driving off in a new car, signing a life insurance or revving up a new power saw…
Sure enough, as Antonio had predicted, we did get our ‘agua’. In fact 240 mm of it combined by gale force winds. As word got around that we would be alone for the holiday, friends and neighbours opened their homes and hearts to us. On Christmas Eve, while the wind was howling, we cheered the season together with a local policeman, his wife, children, in-laws and other family members. On Christmas Day we were invited to the family of the long-passed sacristan of the Santa Maria Mayor church, joining his eight adult children, an old aunt (with a lovely alto voice), spouses, children and ‘Tango’ the dog. After the meal, musical instruments were brought out and they started singing Andalucían carols, some composed by their great-grandfather. Braving the element, we set out on their annual traditional caroling visit to the local convents. In biblical fashion, the first convent we came to was locked. In the second convent a nun eventually opened the door. She let us in to a chapel where a handful cloistered nuns were praying. Hodden around a corner, a couple of them were singing a Gregorian chant, showing fragment of their robes and musical sheets. Once the chant came to an end, our group started singing the carols which this family has sung for the nuns as long as anyone can remember. After a couple of songs, we made our leave and went back out in the rain, seen off by a waving and smiling nun.
Our first Spanish Christmas was a different one indeed. It was not about Christmas presents, but about Christmas presence. And as far as weather predictions go, we have decided to forget about online weather reports and cellphone apps. From now on we will get our weather from ‘the spot’ on the wall, like old Antonio.