Here is the next installment of my podcast about life in Spain. This one, about Christmas, is the final one for 2019. I hope you enjoy it!
For the transcript, see below:
It’s the most wonderful time of year here in Spain: Christmas. And the Spanish love Christmas, just as much as we Americans do. In fact, as I mentioned in another podcast, since there aren’t any major holidays in November, the Christmas season in Spain starts very early. Now we are in full Christmas swing, as can be seen by taking a short walk through any Spanish city. On the first of December the lights, decorations, and trees go up.
Now, Spain does not have such a strong tradition of festive house decoration as we have in the United States. This is largely because, as I’ve said before, the private houses in Spain are not open to the street, but instead normally have tall walls wrapping around the property (so there’s not much to decorate). But the Spanish do love their Christmas lights. People, old and young, flock to the center of Madrid to enjoy the street decorations. It gets so crowded in the city center that you can hardly walk. This year there is a new star attraction: a massive illuminated globe that stands at the end of Gran Vía. Once in a while the ball plays Christmas songs on big speakers, and all the Spaniards within eyesight pull out their phones to record the bright singing ball. Yeah, it’s charming.
A Christmas tradition that may be a bit surprising for Americans is the Christmas Lottery, called El Gordo (the fat one). Everyone buys a ticket, and you can buy them everywhere. In my case, I bought a ticket through the school where I work, and this is fairly common for employees. You can also buy tickets at cafés or restaurants or other types of shops, or at specific lottery stands. There is one particular shop near the Puerta de Sol, right in the center of Madrid, which has somehow become famous for being especially lucky. Thus, every year people line up for hours in order to buy a lottery ticket there (a ticket that is no different from a lottery ticket bought anyywhere else).
A big part of the lottery tradition are the commercials. They have quite a good marketing team, and every year there’s a new concept for the lottery commercial. Last year, for example, it was kind of a spoof on Groundhog Day, with a guy winning the lottery every day over and over until he got sick of it, and then somehow becoming a better person. This year, it’s a bit more sentimental, and it’s about how lottery tickets bring people together. Of course it is ridiculous to connect the idea of a lottery ticket with generosity and family, but the commercials somehow accomplish this paradox. In any case, if I win you can be sure the production values of this podcast will be going up.
Well, Spain has more wholesome Christmas traditions, too. A big part of the Christmas season is the food. There are many types of seasonal sweets. Most famous, perhaps, is turrón, which is like marzipan (which the Spanish also eat) but made with added honey. It comes in many different forms, from a barely solid paste to toothbreakingly hard bars, but in general it’s very very sweet. There are also polvorones, which are balls made with flour and sugar. They have very little water or fat in them, which makes them sort of dry and dusty to eat. (Polvo is Spanish for “powder.”)
My favorite is a type of sweet cake called Roscón de Reyes. This is a type of sweet bread that is delicious when you dip it in coffee. It reminds me a lot of something my dad makes around Christmas, which he calls Swedish Cardamom Coffee Braid. Traditionally, a small toy is baked into the cake, and if you get this piece it’s considered good luck.
Possibly the biggest difference between Spanish and American Christmas is the celebration of the Three Wise Men. In Spanish, they are called the tres reyes magos, which translated to something like the three magic kings, or perhaps the three magi kings. In Spain the day of the magic kings (January 6, which we call Epiphany in English) is almost as important as Christmas itself. And the magic kings also deliver presents! So Christmas season in Spain is long indeed, since the holidays extends from before Christmas all the way to the sixth of January, and the children get presents twice. I should also mention the Cabalgata de los Reyes, a massive parade held on January 5th, with giant floats and people dressed up as the wise kings themselves. Unfortunately for me, I’ve never seen it. Normally I’m home for Christmas break.
Connected with the importance of the Three Wise Men is the popularity of Nativity Scenes. In Spanish these are called belén, which is the translation of Bethlehem. Nativity figurines are sold everywhere, and it’s very common for Spaniards to have little nativity scenes in their houses. In Spain there is a special twist to their nativity scenes, which comes from Catalonia. This is to include a little person defecating in the corner of the scene, called the Caganer (which is Catalan for “the pooper”). The tradition of nativity scenes is just another example of how Spain can be intensely Catholic in its culture, while at the same time divorcing Catholicism from actual religiosity. There are many people who would call themselves atheists who still have nativity scenes in their houses.
The Spanish also like to perform nativity plays, or Christmas pageants. And this brings me to something that is a source of controversy every Christmas season. As you may know, one of the three wise men, Balthasar, is traditionally portrayed as being black. As a result, every year, all around Spain, a white Spanish person—sometimes a celebritiy—will dress up in blackface to play the role of Balthasar (noy only in schools, but also during the big parade). This inevitably makes any visiting Americans extremely uncomfortable, since blackface is a deeply racist symbol in the United States. Spaniards typically react with puzzlement when told by Americans that the practice is racist, and that is normally where the matter ends.
I have never personally seen a nativity play, nor have I seen any Spanish person wearing blackface. I’m sure I would find it upsetting. But, to be honest, this is an area where I hesitate to venture an opinion. Blackface is undeniably racist in an American context, since it is connected with the tradition of minstrel shows, which were based on explicit mockery of black people and black culture. All the same, Spain does not have this history, with all its baggage, and so applying our American sensibilities to a Spanish context is probably not valid. A symbol has no inherent meaning, after all, but is given a meaning by its culture. As a comparison, consider the costumes that Spanish people wear during their Easter processions, which look to Americans like the Klu Klux Klan outfits, but which of course are completely different.
Of course, you could make a strong argument that dressing up as someone from a different race is inherently racist. But considering the different cultural contexts, my inclination is to think that this is just something Spanish people need to work out among themselves, without Americans telling them what is right or wrong. Judging from the petitions on change.org to have a Balthasar played by a black person, the country is slowly moving in the right direction.
Well, let’s leave these troubled waters and move on to New Year’s Eve. For the most part this is celebrated just like it is everywhere: with parties, champaign, and fireworks. But in Spain they have a special tradition. As they count down from 12 to 0, they try to eat one grape every second. That’s twelve grapes total. It’s not easy—I’ve tried. The idea is that it’s supposed to bring you good luck. (My girlfriend doesn’t like grapes, so she eats little pieces of chocolate.)
There are just a couple more differences I shall mention between the Christmas season in Spain and in the United States. I forgot to mention that, since most Spanish homes don’t have fireplaces, they hang their stockings somewhere else. Another is that, since Spain does not have big forests, virtually everyone in the country uses plastic trees. Probably this is a lot better for the environment, since they don’t need to cut down millions of trees every year, like we do in the United States. But I have to admit a real Christmas tree has a lot more romance (besides having a better smell). You are also pretty unlikely to get a beautiful snowy Christmas anywhere in Spain, unless you live up on the mountains.
As for me, I’ll be heading home. Christmas is a time to spend with family and old friends. It is also not a time for making podcasts, so this will be my last episode of 2019. It has been a good run. In a week I will be sitting in my house, wrapped in a blanket, and eating some of my mom’s delicious cooking. But I’ll be sure to bring some Spanish turrón home, too.