As today is Christmas around the world, I thought I might take this opportunity to write about some of the various Christmas traditions in the Greatest Peninsula in the World. I nearly laughed a few weeks ago when one of my students’ mother asked the innocent question “Is Christmas as commercialized in the United States as it is in Spain?” I wanted to be like “Spain has reached 1914 levels of commercialization compared to the United States” but instead explained to her the insanity of holidays in the States.
In Spain, Christmas Eve is equivalent to American Thanksgiving, minus the explanations of how thankful you are and how ready you are to fight to get more at midnight when Black Friday sales begin. Families and friends get together to have a big dinner. Thanks to the influence of American culture and the attempts to expand the knowledge of the English language in the Greatest Peninsula in the World, Papa Noel (Santa Claus) may bring a present or two for the children. The importance of the day is not presents but being with family. On Christmas Day, it’s not uncommon to see restaurants and bars open, although most people spend the day with family.
The presents come on January 6, El Día de los Reyes (The Day of the Kings, The Twelfth Night, Epiphany). On January 5th, the Three Kings (Wise Men) arrive to the cities, towns and villages in a huge parade, where candy, sweets and presents are thrown to children. Some children still put a shoe in the windowsill, although many weren’t aware of this old tradition, for the Three Kings/Wise Men to fill with presents and sweets. The presents opened on Jan. 6 almost always trump any present Papa Noel might bring.
In the Basque Country, things are a bit different. The Three Kings may or may not visit on Jan. 6 depending on how Basque the family feels. The Basques have their own Santa known as Olentzero. Olentzero is a former miner who lives in the mountains somewhere in Euskadi (although it’s Mungia who has a house in his honour). He gives presents to the good children on Christmas Eve and coal to the bad ones. He is dressed in blue and still smokes a pipe in the 21st Century, and like Quijote, he has a burro (donkey) to move around on. Once upon a time, Olentzero used to kidnap bad children, but in the 20th Century and under Franco, took a more gift-giving and positive image. You will not see any Santa hats in Euskal Herria.
Catalunya has adapted Santa more than the Basque Country but continues with their own traditions. The caga tío is part of a trunk of a tree hollowed out to place presents in. He’s sitting on legs so on Christmas morning, he…how should I put this? “defecates” the presents. The Catalans like connecting Christmas to shit, as they also have caganers, or a Catalán figurine crouched on his legs with some human droppings on the ground below him that they place in their nativity scenes to bring luck. Today it is considered an honour to have a caganer made of you. All the cool Iberian celebrities and not-cool politicians have one, and important foreign politicians have one made of them too. Thankfully the one of Obama I bought for my uncle (complete with “Yes we can” written at the bottom) made it past TSA and American customs.
On New Year’s Eve, Spanish, Basque and Catalan families get together to have another meal, and at the first 12 strokes of the New Year, they eat a grape. 12 grapes in 12 seconds for each month of the year to bring good luck for the year. When I’m visiting family in the States, I always watch it on peninsular time and eat grapes with the Iberians. They wear red underwear for good luck in romance for the New Year and then leave to spend the night dancing at a disco or at a cotillion.
I’m sure there are a ton more traditions all across this great nation of nations that I haven’t discovered yet. Feel free to let me know about the traditions in your neck of the woods.
And a ¡feliz navidad! Bon Nadal! Zorionak! Bo Nadal!
And also…¡Prospero año nuevo! Bon any nou! Urte Berri On! I haven’t learned it in gallego yet!