Dec. 20-27, 1998 Madrid, Spain
For the first time in
my adult life, actually my entire life, I'm spending the Christmas holidays away from home
and/or family. About 3,500 miles away from home in fact. One thing is for sure, our
holiday will be very, very different this year. In an effort not to get too crazy the
'first time out', we did plan to be in a city whose populous does, at least, celebrate the
holiday of Christmas. In Madrid, unlike many of the other stops on our itinerary,
Christianity is the predominate religion.
In Spain, as in the U.S., the birth of Christ is primary
'reason for the season'. In addition, both countries hold the formal observance of this
grand event on the 25th of December. It is however, just beyond these two
similarities, that the parallel ends. Very characteristic of the way that the Spaniards
approach life, the Christmas holidays in Spain are just one more excuse, and a good one at
that, to celebrate all that is good.
And celebrate they do. It's not to say that the true meaning of this very
solemn holiday is lost on these deeply religious people, in fact, far from it. They
instead believe that jubilation and reflection can co-exist. For example, instead of
lasting just one or two days, the Spanish carnival - I mean Christmas holidays - stretch
from December 24th (Christmas Eve) to January 6th (Three Kings Day).
The entire celebration, as fun and festive as can be, seems to be sort of a
concoction of what we know as Christmas, April Fools Day, New Years Eve, and Halloween.
Throw into that mix, a smattering of excitement from a $400,000,000 national holiday
lottery jackpot, and you have a rough idea of what Christmas is like in Madrid.
In hopes of having a little bit different, but
still very Feliz Navidad, Laura and I decide that the best way to really get in the spirit
of things, to truly gain a more intimate feel for what it's all about, is to immerse
ourselves in the middle of all the action. And the action in Madrid, is in Plaza Mayor.
Until the last century, the Plaza Mayor (or main square) served as both a marketplace and
venue for a wide-range of public events from festivals to executions (of both bulls during
bullfights and people during the Inquisition). These days, it is Christmas that turns
this, the center of the Old Town, into a bustling setting for both commerce and good
As we walk up the ramped street toward the Plaza,
our ears are greeted with the sound of an impromptu street band exploiting the acoustics
of the archway to pound out a mixed but snappy beat on bongos, stair rails, upside-down
pots or cans, and anything else they could patat-tat-tat a drumstick on. Not exactly 'Jingle
Bells', but festive nonetheless. We walk on and into the crowd of shoppers in the
square, as the blissful buzz of everyone's laughing and chatting instantly surrounds us.
Occasionally punctuated with the sounds of noisemaker horns, firecrackers, exploding
cigarettes, whistles, and 'pop' hammers, the clamor of merriment seems more reminiscent of
Marti Gras than of Christmas.
The twinkling lights strung up above, and glittering sparklers
(being twirled in tiny circles by the little ones) below, illuminate a colorful parade of
Spanish 'kids' of all ages. From those being pushed in strollers, to those hobbling around
with canes; from those all dressed up, to those comfortably dressed down. They pass before
us wearing masks of clowns, monsters, super heroes, or cartoon characters, to cover their
Donning hats like Zoro or toro, Indian head
dresses, and bugaloo antennas that blinked, to decorate their heads. Sporting wigs that
are long and flowing, short and curly, or braided and tied, maybe with natural, sparkling,
or florescent colors, to frame their faces. And carrying everything from drums, horns,
Chinese yo-yo's, swords, guns, and balloon blades, to retracting knives and fake dog doo,
to further animate their fun. All were out and reveling in the celebration of the Spanish
obvious source of all of these outrageous props was the assortment of shops that line the
square's perimeter arcade level and the 100 or so seasonal booths that are set up in 4
long rows in the middle of the plaza. We walk by each one and smile at its owner as we
peruse their offerings. Along with the booths selling masks, wigs, gag gifts, and helium
balloons (for what we later discovered was Christmas Fool's Day), there are still the
traditional booths - those that sell all the little figurines you need to bring home your
own Christmas creche (depicting the Nativity scene).
Originally the most common type of shop in the
square during the holidays, it is this group of vendors that continues to carry on the
tradition and sell this, the most emblematic decoration of the Spanish Christmas. In the
home, the small mangers, houses, and windmills are to be placed in a construction of slabs
of cork bark and moss. So other booths, similar to small corals, hold not only these bits
of nature's decorations, but also, with the heavy spread of an Anglo-Saxon influence in
the 50's, pine and fir trees for trimming in just the same way that we do in our homes.
And where there are Christmas trees, there are
also tree trimmings for sale. We stroll by each glittering, shimmering, sparkling, and
blinking booth, stuffed to the max with tinsel, bulbs, lights, stars, and even little
green plastic trees to put them all on. As if that weren't enough, for those of us who
would prefer to have St. Nick (rather than the three kings) deliver our gifts, red suits
and hats trimmed with fluffy white fur, are here for the taking. And . . . since Santa
hats have been a tradition in our house since our first Christmas together, Laura and I
get into the spirit and pick out two to wear around and remind us of home.
'Twas the night before Christmas, as we sat in our suite,
Our spirits were high, though our feet, they were beat.
Our stockings were hung, on a line by the sink,
Washed just for Saint Nick (they had started to stink).
wee little tree, is the best that we did,
As we walked and we walked, every street in Madrid.
The people are friendly, the sights very cool,
There's just something missing, as we celebrate Yule.
Spending Christmas in Spain, both a thrill and a plight,
Missed family and friends . . . they would be such a sight!
So we raise up or glasses, and make our own cheer,
To toast family and friends, all the ones we hold dear.
For the longer we travel and the further we roam,
We've found nothing more special than Christmas at home.