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Christmas tree in Puerta del SolDec. 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.

Bright lights of El Corte Ingles department storeIn 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.

Learning to celebrate at an early age in Plaza MayorAnd 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.

Feliz Navidad in lightsIn 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 cheer.

Drumming to the beat of ChristmasAs 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.

En Gaurd Zoro!!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 faces.

What cha think of my new do?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 Christmas.

Everything you need for Christmas Fool's DayThe 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).

The real reason for the seasonOriginally 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.

Papa Noel, camels and all!!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).

Scott's holiday handiwork with PhotshopA 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.

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Last modified: June 01, 1999    Photographs and text 1998 Scott and Laura Kruglewicz. All Rights Reserved.

 

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