Wot No Santa?

We Three Kings

[Click on any photo to enlarge] 

Santa is of little consequence in Spain – even for kids.  ‘Papa Noel’ as he’s known here, doesn’t bring any presents at all to many households and maybe just the token one or two to others.  For here it is the three kings or ‘wise men’ who take the starring role, bringing the main haul of presents to the children – and they don’t deliver until 6th January: the day of ‘Los Reyes Magos’.

One of the many market stalls selling nativity figures

This tradition keeps Catholic Spain and some Latin American countries closer to the real meaning of Christmas – yet, just as in the UK and elsewhere, it has also become a commercial opportunity, albeit on a smaller scale.

Part of an extensive 'Belén' nativity scene at a friend's home

Every family constructs its own nativity scene at home, with as much excitement as we select and decorate our Christmas trees.  To cater for this demand, the Belén (Bethlehem) market sets up next to the cathedral weeks in advance – 18 stalls all selling models for the nativity scenes.  This may seem excessive to the uninitiated, given the limited nature of our own modest nativity scenes.

Here, however, the familiar figures of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, the three kings, shepherds, angels, donkey, stable and manger are supplemented by more unusual and exotic characters…

Bull fights in Bethlehem?

Ranging from beautiful hand painted representations to frankly tacky doll-like figures, you can buy anything you may want to include in your wider Bethlehem scene, from conventional camels to the less likely bull ring complete with bullfighter and toro!

Another stable birth...

People make their nativity scene from scratch, so you can buy basic materials such as cork and sand, unbelievably expensive ‘stables’, inns (at which there is no room) and even bars and shops with hanging hams and sausages.  Included in your scene may be working ‘water features’, moving characters and just about any vegetable, plant or animal which fires your imagination – including mice just a few millimetres in size, which would set you back 2 euros apiece!

King Herod's men massacring the first born

Some of the most outlandish figures I saw included Herod’s soldiers massacring babies, a horse giving birth (to a foal of a similar size to its mother) and a human character squatting to defecate….

Check out the little guy on the left...

Good taste is maintained however in the many large-scale nativity scenes on display in public squares and buildings and almost every church (and there are many).  These are lovely to see and, like those lovingly made in people’s homes, are a moving reminder of what Christmas is all about.  Many of the ecclesiastic versions are splendid and vary to reflect the affiliations of the church – one that I saw, linked to El Rocio, (see earlier blog) included gypsy caravans and representations of the church, buildings, lake and wildlife of that amazing town.

Public Belén at the town hall

Christmas is altogether more low-key, a lot less brash, and more religious here.  I found it difficult, for example, to find much of a selection of Christmas cards – they haven’t fallen for that widespread money-making racket on the scale that we have – so far (but I dooo still like to receive them….).  The most important day of the Christmas season in Spain is Christmas eve, when families get together to share an evening meal and go to Mass.

The 3 Kings' camels have arrived in Seville already

Back to the important subject of present-giving though…. Like our Santa tradition, the children write to the three kings telling them what they would like to receive and post their letters in special boxes.  Real camels arrive in the city centre to give rides, next to ‘live’ nativity scenes – not a reindeer in sight.  The kings deliver the presents during the night of the 5thJanuary, and this being a rather warmer climate that ours, chimneys down which to climb are in short supply – so the kings climb up the balconies instead!  Children leave out “mantecados” (traditional Christmas biscuits) and a drink of Anis for the kings (ironic that we leave Spanish sherry for Santa..) and a bowl of water for their camels, who are rumoured to eat plants from the balconies…

Detail from a home made Belén enjoyed by children

As our British Christmas will be well and truly over by January 5th (the 12th night, time to take down your tree!), I look forward to being back in Seville to continue festivities and enjoy the best of both worlds…  though I’m not sure the three kings will have much time for an Inglesa…

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Let’s Do the Time Warp

You don’t get jet-lag taking the short hop to Spain –  after all, they’re just one hour ahead of UK time.  There is however, a definite time warp to get accustomed to.  With lunch typically at 3pm, no one, but no one, goes out for dinner before 10pm – many restaurants don’t even open before then.  Spanish friends will always suggest meeting for drinks at 10, then going on for something to eat later – I’ve even been invited to start an evening out at 1.30am!  And it’s not just the youngsters – a recent post-Christening party began at 11.30pm (giving guests time to have dinner before they arrive…).  Luckily, for those not acclimatized, there are plenty of wonderful tapas bars which tolerantly allow you to eat tasty small portions at more or less any time.

Only the tourists fill the early tables, however.  In the Plaza close to my home, very much a place for locals, the bars are empty at 7 or 8pm (see photo above – you’ll just have to believe me that it was 7.30pm!).  Indeed, if I suggest to a Spanish friend that we have a beer or glass of wine at 7pm, they giggle nervously (in the way you might if I suggested such a thing at 10.30am…).  Closer friends just come straight out with: “At this time?”.  By 11pm the place is thronging –  with children as well as adults.  They all come out together and there’s a playground for the kids while their parents enjoy a relaxed meal nearby.  It’s very strange for foreign eyes to see children on climbing frames at midnight!

But it’s a lovely, inclusive atmosphere in the deliciously warm evenings, when the intense heat of the day has subsided.  And because the children aren’t made to sit up straight at the table, but are free to run around (within sight, but not around the tables), generally there is none of the intrusive wailing or whining, dreaded by adult diners.

At 9 the bars start to fill with the early crowd...

Because of the heat, office workers start early (about 7.30/8am) and stop for lunch at 3pm – to return to work at around 5pm after a siesta.  On occasions when a return to work isn’t required late afternoon, there is the potential for a serious boozy lunch – and no one does a boozy lunch like the Spaniards!  The last one I was invited to began at 3pm and ended at 7.30pm…  Everything is taken at a leisurely pace – I have had to curb my natural tendency to scoff everything in front of me as if it’s about to be confiscated.  Shared food in the middle of the table is picked at slowly, while drinks slip down rather more quickly and the focus is on the chat, the teasing, the joking.

I’m half way acclimatised now… Going out with English friends for supper this evening and not meeting till 9.30.  It’s fine when, as in my case, getting out of bed on a morning is a ‘when I feel like it’ affair and you always have time for a siesta in the afternoon – everything just shunts forward a few hours and pans out rather well.  I certainly couldn’t do it if I had to start work at 7.30am – hardy people, these Spaniards!

Kids still enjoying the Plaza at 11.30pm

Only problem is, by the time I get my butt into gear and want to grab some shopping, the shops close for a few hours (2 till 5 or 6) – maddening!  This brings me to a more serious point about Spanish working hours.  A Sevillan friend tells me that, though enjoyable in many respects, Spanish working hours are a problem currently under review by a National Commission.  For a start, parents’ and children’s work and school hours don’t coincide.  Of course this is often a problem in the UK as well, but it’s exacerbated in Spain by their different social and eating habits.  For example, almost all children go home from school for lunch at 1.30 – but lunch time for parents is not until 3pm…  Then they still have the problem of needing someone to collect them after school, as we do in the UK and elsewhere.  This means that Spanish people spend a higher proportion of their household budget on childcare than other Europeans[1] – and given that the Spanish value family life so highly, it’s an anomaly.  It’s even been suggested that it may partially account for the low birth rate in Spain!

Not surprisingly then, a Government report* found that Spanish workers were experiencing high stress levels in trying to reconcile work and different aspects of their personal lives.  Added to this, their working hours don’t coincide with the rest of Europe – either in the timing or duration of their lunch break – making it difficult for businesses to communicate with other European countries.  The same  report found that while Spanish working hours are among the longest, their productivity is in the bottom 3 (beaten only by Greece and Portugal).

High unemployment has led to widespread protests

Given the economic problems the country is currently facing, this is clearly a problem which needs addressing urgently.  But these practices are so deeply engrained in the life and culture of the country, it’s not going to be easy….  I’m pleased to say that one of the recommendations is that shops should open at hours which suit customers!  Looking forward to its implementation….


[1] Ministry of Public Administration and University of Navarra, ‘White Paper on working time structure in Spain’ 2005

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Occult Spain

I was woken by a text from a Spanish friend: “If you want to see something ‘tipico’ of Sevilla, go to Plaza del Salvador in one hour, and take your camera”.  It was only 8.20, and after a late night, I was tempted to ignore it and stay in bed.  I’m very glad I wrestled that urge to the ground and got my lazy ass to the centre… On the way, I saw hints that something was going on – women in traditional bright-coloured long, flouncy-bottomed dresses and men in breeches with dashing black hats hurrying through the streets.

Gypsy caravans in front of the Alcázar

By the time I reached Plaza del Salvador, there were men with industrial hoses cleaning up whatever had been… (I didn’t move that fast – a girl needs breakfast!).  However, I followed the crowd round the next corner to be treated to an amazing sight.  A procession of gypsy type caravans – or wild west wagons – made with pretty, frilly fabrics which could have come from Laura Ashley or Cath Kidston.  These very colourful wagons were pulled by oxen (hence the following hoses..).  Ahead of the wagons, men and women in the traditional dress rode horses – the men with hand on hip, proud and erect, the women riding side-saddle (they have little option in those dresses…).


This is the annual pilgrimage of El Rocio – half party, half religious festival linked to Pentecost – when hundreds of thousands of ‘pilgrims’ spend up to 4 days travelling to a small town in Huelva Province, carrying several hundredweight of church silver with them, to pay homage to a statue of the Virgin Mary.  I saw the beginning of the pilgrimage from Seville’s churches, but they go from towns all over Andalucia and far beyond.

In Seville, many women observing the procession had taken the opportunity to bring out their own flamenco type dresses – you can’t blame them, they cost a fortune and otherwise only come out once a year at Feria (the annual Fair).  This created some strange sights – with women dressed like Carmen Miranda pushing prams and queuing at the Tabac kiosks.  Many looked beautiful, but others didn’t let middle-age spread and sag put them off squeezing into the figure-hugging candy wrappers…

After El Rocio had gone on its way, I went to see a photo exhibition about ‘Occult Spain’ (España Oculta), which they translate as ‘hidden Spain’ – but the implication for English speakers of something darker, is somewhat appropriate…

Would you risk it? Photograph by Cristina García Rodero

The photos, taken in the 1970s and 80s by Cristina García Rodero, depict centuries old traditions, superstitions and ceremonies, which are faithfully followed year after year to the current day.  In a world where so much else is changing and traditions being lost, this is impressive.  The photographs range from the picturesque (El Rocio being one example), to the grotesque: including one in which people are ‘playing’ at being crucified and another in which a child’s coffin – with a child in it – sits at the side of a road (I think the child was pretending to be dead, but no idea why…).  In one part of the country, they gather all of the babies born that year onto a mattress on the ground, and a guy who looks like Rasputin jumps over them! It’s frustrating that the photos aren’t accompanied by an explanation of these extraordinary events.

This is all so far from the Costas, the real heart and soul of Spain – so interesting, quirky, heartfelt and passionate.  Maybe the old traditions have survived so well here due to the insularity of the natives – young friends in Seville tell me that many Sevillans have never been outside of the Province, let alone the country.  Their view (despite not having travelled) is: “We live in the most beautiful city in the world, why would we want to go anywhere else?”.  Well, I’ve travelled to nearly 40 countries and lived in several – and I agree with their judgement.

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Carmona – historic town

Chicas, you will be proud of me – with ‘The Spaniard’ away in Madrid on some pretext or other, I determined to have a very cultural weekend in his absence.  It started on Friday afternoon when my lovely friend Miguel kindly took me to visit Carmona.

All the streets in Carmona are beautiful

Carmona is a small and ancient town about 30km outside of Seville and I highly recommend a visit there.  It’s one of those places that is so full of history, beautiful buildings and local colour that you want to photograph absolutely everything you see (which I pretty much did!).  Like Seville, you can see evidence of all of the stages of Carmona’s history, with its power battles and changes of rulers and culture, in the impressive buildings that remain.  The main city gate, dating from the 9thcentury, has remnants of wave after wave of settlers: Eastern Mediterranean, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors and finally Christians.

Ancient city gate 'Puerta de Sevilla'

The Alcazar (fortress palace) which majestically dominates the highest point in Carmona, was originally built by Muslim rulers in the 11th century, but later taken over and redeveloped by Christian King Pedro ‘The Cruel’ (he sounds an interesting type…).   This magnificent building is now a very swishy Parador (state owned hotel), where it is almost impossible to get a booking as it’s permanently full.

The palace fortress (Alcazar) now a hotel

However, they do let ordinary folk like you and me come in to have a drink on the terrace balcony, with fabulous views over the vega – which Miguel and I took full advantage of.  Miguel had just had his family lunch (it was 6pm for Pedro’s sake!), but I was ready for a tapa too.  He chuckled indulgently when I said I would have a beer, implying that it was a bit early – our Spanish friends really are on a different time schedule to us Brits!

Enjoying the view from the Alcazar balcony

The historical power changes are just as visible in the religious buildings.  At the church of Santa Maria de la Asuncion, for example, a 15thcentury Gothic building full of the gold and silver treasures and ornamentation of a Catholic church, the orange tree patio of a mosque remains, where Muslims would perform their ablutions before praying.

Muslim courtyard and Christian bell tower

Within this courtyard is the last remaining evidence of the Visigoth temple which existed before the mosque, in what I am reliably told, is one of their calendars.  I know you’ll be imagining some colourful pictures of Visigothic children at play, with days of the month neatly set out underneath, but no, this was a white pillar with some messy carving on it.

Visigoth Calendar

OK, on Saturday I just lounged around in a lazy manner, but on Sunday the cultural theme continued when I went to the Book Fair (Feria del Libro) with my new friend and published poet, Lola Crespo (not to be confused with the British Lola implicated in my first blog post – in fact I’m going to change her pseudonym to Krissie, to avoid confusion…).  Spanish Lola (her real name, she is a respectable person who needs no protection!) was doing a book signing at one of the stands.

Lola signing her book 'Gramatica Malva'

Afterwards, she took me to a remarkable performance by a poet called Fernando Mansilla. Even though I couldn’t understand all of it, the rhythm and music of the words and his very deep gravelly voice, were amazing.  He did some of the poems to the accompaniment of music.

The guy on the double bass (see below) was just back-up, but I thought he was fit and you deserved a treat after the history lesson…

Hasta pronto chicas! x

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Speaking the Lingo – some handy hints

The Spaniard is very strict about making me speak and write in Spanish – almost all of the time.  In fact, we just had our first row about it.  Well, to be fair, I had a row with him about translating something I’d written into Spanish for me.  I went off on one when he had the temerity to suggest I should try it first and he would correct it – instead of reacting to my rant, he graciously capitulated and did it for me.  Frankly, I think this was a clever ploy on his part to move me from righteous indignation and fury, to shame-faced sorry person in seconds – and it worked!

The Spanish language has fewer words than English, (have a look at the relative thickness of the Spanish and English sections of an English/Spanish dictionary – Exhibit A).

Exhibit A

I guess this is because the English language stems from many different sources – all those people who conquered our shores gave our language a lot of sources and nuances, whereas Spanish is mainly Latin, with a bit of Arabic thrown in from when the Moors occupied the Iberian peninsula in the Middle Ages (any word beginning with ‘al’ comes into this category).

Having fewer words means one word is often used for many different meanings, almost to a ludicrous extent… Take the word ‘pasar’ – even in my poxy little Oxford Minidictionary (the only one that would fit into my Ryanair baggage weight allowance) – it lists its meanings as: pass, put, strain, spend, swallow, show, tolerate, give, happen, come, go (come and go!).  I guess it’s all in the context, but this makes it quite difficult.  For example, my friend Miguel introduced me to his wife’s aunt, Tia Esperanza, last week, who kindly said I was ‘very blonde and very fine’.  Unsure what she meant by ‘fine’ (fina), I checked out the OM when I got home, to find she could have meant: slender, shrewd, keen, polite, refined or dry (pretty sure this last only applies to sherry!). I still have no idea which she meant…

The Trusty OM

It’s also difficult for them trying to translate into English – the Spaniard told me I was really hitting him the other day.  Bewildered (I am not abusing the poor man, I assure you), I looked up ‘hitting’ in the OM – it seems to have an implication of ‘affecting’ someone emotionally, as well as punching them.  Hope it’s a positive effect – still not sure….

One thing that makes Spanish easier for us Brits however, is that every word we have that ends in ‘tion’ or ‘sion’ is the same in Spanish as it is in English (e.g. education = educacion, television = television).  This means, you start out already knowing 100s of Spanish words – just put the emphasis on the end of the word and lisp a bit when there’s a c involved (e.g. educacion pron. educathion).

On the other hand, there are occasionally what are known in the language teaching trade as ‘false friends’ – that is a word that sounds exactly the same, but has a different meaning… I discovered one of them in a rather embarrassing manner at the pharmacists, when asking for something for my constipation (I know, too much info, but bear with me).  I couldn’t understand why she kept offering me Lemsips, until, on consulting the trusty OM, I discovered constipacion is having a cold – bunged up nose… The word for constipated, in case you need to know, is ‘estrenido’ – you can remember that, sounds like ‘straining’….

Back soon with more startling insights.

Hasta la vista x

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