Nick Butcher on Fiestas and Foods of Spain:



Given the significance of what Christmas celebrates, the birth of God made man, it's strange to reflect that one of the few certainties about Christmas and all its accumulated traditions is that nobody really has any idea when Jesus was born. Christ's birthday as the 25th of December was arrived at only after two or three hundred years of debate, by which time memories of the event can hardly have been fresh. Nor was it a date that was accepted by all branches of the Church. However, it did fit neatly into the calendar, the days around the winter solstice having long been a time associated with pagan festivities, especially that of the Roman feast of the sun, Natalis Invicti, The Birth of the Invincible One, whose light shone ever longer and stronger from this time of the year on.

We have those from long ago to thank also for the tradition of having a bird as the centrepiece of the feast. The symbolism of the idea was pertinent, as it was believed that the geese and other migratory birds which returned each year to northern lands from the south were messengers sent from heaven to bring with them the spring, and all the abundance that would entail. The sacrifice of such a bird at around the winter solstice was a gesture by which in effect the victim was returned to the heavens. There it could petition for the swift return of spring.

Modern traditions, of course, vary from country to country. Here in Spain, Papá Noel, or Father Christmas, is a comparatively recent arrival, mainly thanks to television and Hollywood. Santa will generally bring Spanish children something, but the bulk of their presents always come with the Reyes Magos, the three Wise Men or Kings. Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar arrive from the East on the evening of the 5th of January, process down the streets in their chariots and, when the children are safely tucked up in bed, will pass from house to house, piling presents into the shoes that have been left out in excited expectation. Those who have been naughty will wake to find only lumps of sweet black rock called 'carbón' or coal. Everybody, however, will tuck into their 'roscón de Reyes', the ring-shaped cake studded with candied fruit representing the emeralds and rubies on the Kings' robes.

belenAnother striking difference in the Spanish Christmas is that the huge family dinner is celebrated on the night of Christmas Eve, rather than on Christmas Day. People spare no expense on the food, and make a point of decorating the table with their finest cutlery, glassware and linen. After daunting quantities of food and drink, carols are sung round the family crib, called in Spanish the 'belén' or 'nacimiento' or 'pesebre'. These nativity scenes go back to the thirteenth century and Francis of Assisi, who used a real ox and ass in the one he made in a cave. The idea caught on and spread to Spain in the eighteenth century. Elaborate versions can be seen in shops, churches, town halls and cathedrals. In some places, Arcos de la Fontera near Jerez, for example, you can visit 'belenes vivos', where townspeople dress up in period clothes as the characters in the scene and transform areas of the town into Bethlehem.

What do people eat over Christmas? The menu varies from region to region. Here in Andalucía the typical Christmas Eve dinner will start with the 'picoteo', the nibbles of the best serrano ham and other cold cuts you can afford. There will be good cheese, and plates of exhorbitantly priced prawns. Foie gras is becoming more popular too, and
the seriously rich will splash out on 'angulas', baby eels, though one suspects this is just to show that they can afford the stratospheric prices. They would never admit that the little elvers only actually taste of the garlic, chilli and oil that they are cooked with.
To follow, every family has its own traditional dishes. Lots of people like a big fish as the centrepiece, sea-bream or 'besugo' being the most popular. Many prefer a turkey, either truffled or in the delicious 'pepitoria' sauce. Others choose roast lamb, with its obvious religious and seasonal symbolism, and it is very good at this time of year.

Just when you thought you couldn't eat another thing, out comes a tray piled with 'turrón' and other Christmas goodies. 'Turrón' is a nougat made of almonds, sugar, honey and egg white, and is a speciality of the Alicante region in the east of Spain. There are many types, but two are much more popular than the rest: the chunky 'Alicante' style and the smooth and creamy 'Jijona'. If you're ever in the area it's well worth a visit to a turrón factory in the town of Jijona (now often spelt Xixona), for the aroma of roasting almonds will convince you that they must be making the most delicious sweet known to man. The Spanish certainly think that's the case as every year they get through appreciably more than a kilo per man, woman and child.
Alongside the turrón will also be a selection of crumbly 'mantecados', sweetmeats made of lard, almonds, sugar and flour supposedly invented either in Antequera or Estepa in Andalucía in the nineteenth century. They are mass-produced in the factories of Estepa, or you can buy more home-made-style ones from convents. They are something of an acquired taste.

As if that were not enough, fried and stuffed pastries are popular, and lots of people put marzipan figures or cakes on their sweet trays, too. Marzipan, made of fifty per cent almonds, fifty per cent sugar, goes back a long way in Spanish history - it's thought to have been introduced by the Arabs in the eighth century. It is a speciality of Toledo and its region, and of its nuns, of course, from the Convento de Santa Isabel, for example.
After dinner, a stroll is required, and many will head for the church to attend Midnight Mass, called here La Misa del Gallo, the Mass of the Cockerel. One explanation for the name is that a cockerel was the first in the stable to witness the birth of Christ, and announced it to the world with his crow. After the Mass, there will be much greeting of friends, children will set off bangers, and you may come across a 'pastoral', a group of people dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses. They roam the streets singing carols to the inimitable accompaniment of the 'zambomba'. This is a crude instrument made by stretching a goatskin tightly over a flowerpot. A hole is made in the skin to accomodate a wetted stick - and it must be continuously wetted - and this is then thrust forcefully up and down, producing quite the strangest sound you will hear anywhere at Christmas.

Some families will have more reason than usual to celebrate, following the huge lottery draw on the 22nd. That morning, all you hear coming from radios and televisions is the sound of the numbers being called as they are drawn from the great churning balls called 'bombos'. The voices calling the numbers belong to boys and girls from the Colegio de San Ildefonso. It is a great honour for them, they practice hard, and their delight is plain when they announce one of the big prizes, especially El Gordo, the Fat One, worth a cool two million euros per winning ticket.

You can have a pre-Christmas binge, and catch some fun local dances, at the famous and hugely popular 'fiesta de las migas' in Torrox, on the last Sunday before Christmas. 'Migas' means crumbs, and in many places in Spain the dish is made with stale bread. Here, however, plain wheat flour is used. It is cooked with oil, garlic, water and salt; a simple peasant dish of stodge, therefore, but delicious if properly prepared and accompanied by something tasty like the unusual salad served in Torrox. It contains salt cod, olives, oranges, tomatoes and onions, and is called 'ensalada arriera'.

On the 28th December, Spain remembers the Slaughter of the Innocents by celebrating a sort of day-long April Fool's Day, 'El día de los Inocentes', when all sorts of 'inocentadas' or practical jokes are played, not least by the press. Just outside Málaga, at Puerto de la Torre, they also hold a fiesta on this day in honour of the flamenco-tinged 'verdial' dance, where the participants dress in plain country clothes but with weirdly decorated hats. .
Which brings us to the year's end and 'La Noche Vieja' when, after a large dinner and as the clock strikes twelve, you try to swallow twelve lucky grapes, one for each chime. This is much easier if you peel and even seed the grapes first, and nobody I know considers this to be cheating. There follows the 'cotillón', the party involving lots of music and dancing which will last until day break.
The streets are strangely quiet the next day.





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