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Spanish Christmas

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   As temperatures fall, people start to talk about Christmas. At this time of year Spanish towns and cities come alive with a host of cribs, choral music, busy restaurants, markets and illumination by night, ideal for a romantic stroll.
   The streets are lit up with coloured lights, shop windows fill with unusual gift ideas, Christmas decorations and toys, people can be seen getting together even more in the streets and bars, wrapped up warm against the cold, and there is even more joy to be felt in the atmosphere.
All this can mean only one thing: Spanish Christmas is on its way.


Christmas carols
   This is the music to accompany the festive season... On the television, in shops, out in the street, in the theatres.
   These carols ("Villancicos") are deep rooted in the purest tradition of Spanish music. They are usually happy tunes and tell stories of Bethlehem or the family of Jesus.
   Most of them have their roots in village life, hence the accompaniment tends to be simple (tambourine, "zambomba" -a kind of drum-, mortar or the playing of an anisette bottle).
   You will often come across groups of children and adults singing these carols in the main streets of towns and cities.

Flamenco Christmas "La Zambomba"
   Zambombas were originally little more than get-togethers with friends, neighbours and family each year on the night before Christmas Eve, held in the patios and courtyards of "casas de vecinos" (various dwellings set around a central patio).
   Here a ring would form around the fire, with people spontaneously singing and dancing to Spanish Christmas carols for an indeterminate length of time, with wine, anisette and Spanish Christmas sweets in abundance. The main instrument is the zambomba, hence the name of the fiesta. These zambombas are traditionally hand-made, from an earthenware pot covered with an animal skin. A piece of cane is fastened in the centre of the skin, so that rubbing the cane produces a sound.
   Everyone takes part at these Zambombas, singing or playing some kind of instrument.
Although Seville and Jerez are where this tradition is most deep rooted, Christmas songs are sung the length and breadth of Andalusia.


Visiting cribs
   Cribs are important symbols of Spanish Christmas. These representations of the birth of Jesus can be seen in the squares of cities, towns and villages alike, as well as in the doorways of houses and in shop windows.
   Visiting Cribs has become a tradition for many families in Andalusia. Every year, people work on hundreds of cribs to be found in all the different provinces of the region. Some of the most outstanding, crammed with detail, are the cribs constructed by the "La Roldana" association in Seville, or the Crib Association in Jerez. It is well worthwhile seeing these painstaking reconstructions of landscapes inspired in those of Jordan and Israel.
   Every year in Rute (Cordoba province), they make a crib moulded from more than 800 kg of chocolate.
   You can usually find several cribs in most towns. Some are larger than others, but they are all works of art created with the utmost care.

Jerez Cribs

Christmas sweets
   Estepa is well worth a visit at this time of year, to discover in depth how and where so many Spanish Christmas sweets are produced. "Alfajores" (with filling), "roscos de vino" (made with wine), "mantecados" (made with flour, almonds and lard), "polvorones" (like shortbread), "pastorcitas", "hojaldrados" (with puff pastry), along with newer additions covered with chocolate, "yemas" (made with egg yolk), "empi├▒onados" (with pine nuts), coconut balls... A huge selection that you can try at the shops and factories to be found the length and breadth of Estepa.

   There are still many enclosed convents in Andalusia, where some of the most delicious Christmas sweets are painstakingly produced.
   Many of these Spanish Christmas goodies are prepared in convents by the nuns, and they are real delicacies. If you would like to try marzipan, pine-nut sweets, sugar-coated almonds, "marquesas" (rich sweets) and other traditional delights, then this is a wonderful opportunity to buy them. Every year, at the beginning of December, there is an Exhibition of the Enclosure Nuns' Sweets held in Seville, where you can purchase any of the above.
   The following are some of the most typical desserts and sweets of Andalusia:
El Roscon de Reyes: On 6 January, the epiphany, families enjoy this traditional cake - the "Roscon de Reyes" It is a ring-shaped cake made from light sponge, decorated with crystallised fruit, symbolising the rubies and emeralds that adorned the beautiful cloaks of the Three Kings. A little surprise is hidden in the sweet sponge, and the person who finds it is blessed with good luck - a great way to start the new year.
Polvorones: A light dough with icing sugar.
Marzipan: Sugar, almonds and egg whites are the main ingredients in these little edible figurines.
Turron: Of Moorish origins. Originally made of just honey and almonds, now there is a wide variety of flavours, colours and textures.

Christmas eve
   On 24 December, families in Andalusia get together to celebrate Spanish Christmas dinner, one of the most important of the year. Generally it is not only parents and children that come together, but also grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and other family members.
   It is usually a copious, exquisite meal, with plenty of typical Spanish Christmas products. Although there can be substantial variation from one province to another, common elements are turkey, seafood, "turron" (almond sweet) and sparkling wine for the toast.
   Family conversation can last well into the night.
Many restaurants close on this night, given that it is a family occasion.
   Midnight Mass: Midnight Mass is one of the most deep-rooted Catholic traditions.
For centuries, this mass has been celebrated at midnight on 24 December, to see in Christmas day in commemoration of the birth of Jesus. Nowadays, after the Spanish Christmas Eve dinner, devotees head to church with their families to attend the traditional Midnight Mass.

New Year's eve
   The night of 31 December (New Year's Eve) is not as family-oriented as Christmas Eve. Sometimes it starts with a family dinner, but later, the end of the old year and the beginning of the new tends to be celebrated with a party with friends.
Some people prefer to celebrate at one of the many restaurants offering dinner and dancing for the occasion.
   The most famous tradition is eating the lucky grapes. This consists of eating twelve grapes one by one in time with the striking of the clock at 12 midnight. There is then a toast with sparkling wine to welcome the New Year.
   The fiesta usually lasts all night until dawn, with people going for "chocolate con churros" (flour fritters and hot chocolate) in the morning.

Lucky Grapes

The night of the three wise men. The parade.
   The end of the Spanish Christmas period comes the day dedicated to children. The 6th January (Epiphany or day of the Three Kings) is when children in Spain get their presents, after waiting all through the holiday period. Before going to bed, children leave their shoes in a visible spot in the house, or out on the balcony. They go to sleep with the excitement of waking up to discover the presents that Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar will have brought for them.
   On the afternoon before, there is the Three Kings Parade, where children can greet the Three Wise Men as they make their way through the streets, and ask them for the presents they want.

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