When I lived in Spain I used to complain about how long the holiday season lasted: it seemed to stretch all the way from the fiestas at the beginning of December until past Twelfth Night.**
Here in the UK, though, much as I was bemoaning the supermarket aisles crammed with marzipan, iced cake and mince pies back in October, Christmas seems to be a bit of a flash in the pan.
True, today is the first of three supposedly festive days, but what does that really mean other than to make travel difficult and affect shop opening times?
Today I suppose that even the local supermarket is closed and I’m pretty sure I can’t just go and get a pub lunch if I haven’t booked in advance, but tomorrow most of the shops will be open again, the trains will be running, too, and on Tuesday there will be buses as usual and pretty much everything will be back to normal.
Back in Spain, I used to love the fact that even if I missed the last dates for Christmas post, I could always justify it by saying I’d gone native and over there the Kings – who are the traditional bringers of gifts rather than Father Christmas – don’t arrive until el día de los Reyes.
A day off at this time of year was an ideal opportunity to browse the local mercadillos with all their glittering wares of artesanía and international knick-knacks and fripperies; in fact, with the late-shopping Kings in mind, the festive markets are still in full swing up until late on January 5th, so I didn’t even need to think about Christmas shopping until after New Year.
Despite the fact that Christmas, New Year and Epiphany are fixed dates in the calendar, the celebrations almost always catch me unawares. This year the mild weather has made it difficult to feel very festive and I managed to miss all the local markets, the carol services and other celebratory events that might have put me more in tune with the season. Once more, I shall have to look at taking the Chinese New Year as the hinge point to my year, and hope I am a little more on track by then.
**For those of you who’d like to know more about the Spanish attitude to fiestas, this is one of the essays from Los vecinos and other animals, my latest book, which brings together the Outside the Box columns I wrote between 2009 and 2010 for an English-language newspaper based on the Costa Cálida.
Fiestas y puentes
It seems as if los españoles are getting más formales. When I arrived here, in the late Eighties, it was the land of sol y sangría even in the capital. Well, OK, it was more vino de mesa than sangría – a litre bottle on the table with your menú, even if you were eating alone – but there was certainly plenty of sunshine. And there was plenty of time to enjoy the sun: I’d never imagined that a country could have so many bank holidays.
I was teaching English at an academia in Madrid and the course had barely got underway when we had a day off for doce de octubre. The norteamericanos among us were delighted to celebrate Columbus Day, but most of the Brits weren’t interested in the ideological roots of the fiesta, we just thought it was a good excuse to take a long lunch y pedir otro litro de vino.
At least we knew about Hallowe’en, so Todos los Santos didn’t come as a complete surprise; though the fact it was a day off was an unexpected bonus. Particularly as it fell on a Thursday and we newcomers were introduced to the concept of “puente”: a day that falls between a weekend and una fiesta que cae un martes o un jueves and adds a linking bridge of a holiday to straddle the gap. All the students headed back to their pueblos to visit the family plots in the local cementerios. A four-day weekend would actually have made a trip to our own grandparents’ graves almost feasible, if they’d only invented cut-price airlines back then. Instead, I suspect we just raised a glass of vino to their memory.
I think Madrid capital celebrated La Almudena on November 9th and so we learned about holidays in honour of local revered saints, which affect individual towns or villages or perhaps a small area of a municipality: my flatmate, who spent half her time travelling out to the más allá of Arganda del Rey, years before it was connected to the centre by metro, had to work while the rest of us had a day off. She got her own back when the suburb celebrated their patron saint’s day, San Fernando, a finales de mayo.
Then came December with what our Spanish compañeros de trabajo assured us was un acueducto. The 6th was el día de la Constitución and the 8th la Inmaculada and they fell on a Tuesday and a Thursday. Desde luego, that meant dos puentes. And if you join two bridges in the middle, you get an aqueduct as impressive as the one in Segovia, and a full week of fiesta.
Almost immediately, Christmas was upon us, with New Year pisándole los talones. But that wasn’t it, of course, as we still had Reyes bringing up the rear. Which is when I found out that Spanish years no empiecen el día uno, sino half way through January.
But that was back en el siglo veinte. Spain is now part of the Unión Europea and the world is in crisis. Yesterday was the Day of the Constitution and it fell on a Sunday. Today I’m working. No compensation for a Sunday Bank holiday, and no puente linking on to tomorrow’s Immaculate Conception. It’s a good job I can still afford the wine to drown my sorrows.
– “A glimpse into another world explained by a writer who notices all the little details that make life interesting” –
Los vecinos and other animals. Brief essays from the pueblo is available as an ebook from Amazon.