Wednesday, December 20, 2017
I can only generalise here but I think that Christmas is an incredibly important time for Britons. Even if it isn't, in fact, much more than a couple of days of family arguments, overeating and snoozing in front of the telly the build up to it, the folklore around it, the customs associated with it, are deeply entrenched in British culture. Put a picture of a robin, in the snow, on the front of a greetings card and it's a Christmas card and Christmas cards are one of the symbols, the rites, of Christmas even if you're going to do it all on Facebook this year. Although Britons eat chocolates all year round most British houses don't have tins of Quality Street and the like except at Christmas time. You may be vegan, you may be going to have Indian food this year, but, if I were to ask Britons what the traditional Christmas lunch consists of, the answer would be turkey with all the trimmings. Holly, mistletoe, houses lit up with lights, the works do, Salvation Army bands, carol concerts, Christmas trees and all the rest are obvious and persistent Christmas symbols.
As we approach Christmas I usually do a bit of English language Christmas vocabulary with my students through songs, stories or quizzes. I wouldn't expect them to know mince pies just as I wouldn't expect most Britons to know about traditional Spanish fare like turrón, mantecados or polvorones. But I'm always surprised when I ask students what colour Santa's clothes are and the answer doesn't appear to be obvious to them. I find it strange that I need to explain that Papá Noel - which is the most common name for Santa here and which I presume comes from the French - is also known as Father Christmas or Santa Claus or Santa. Surely, just like me, they have seen hundreds of soppy Hollywood films loaded with this imagery? I never understand why the question about which animal pulls Santa's sleigh, or what a sleigh is, are more problematic than simply knowing the vocabulary for reno (reindeer) or trineo (sleigh). Explain as I might that the sound that a bell makes is called jingling there is no link, for the majority of Spaniards that I've ever taught, between bells, jingling or not, and Christmas. Even the Christian type questions - why was Jesus born in a stable?, what did the Wise Men follow? - don't seem to have the pat responses learned from an arsenal of memorised Christmas songs.
Some things are the same in both countries, for instance most towns have Christmas lights in their main streets and families get together to eat. Other things are completely different in Spain to the UK but equally widespread. For example nearly all the Spanish bars have raffles for Christmas baskets loaded with food and drink and the big Christmas lottery moves millions of euros. Other things are variations on a similar theme. Santa isn't particularly Spanish for instance, he's a recentish import, but the Spanish do have gift givers, the Three Kings, (Three Wise Men to you and me) and they turn up to hand over their gifts on the evening of the 5th January in big parades the length and breadth of Spain.
As an outsider, an outsider who has seen a lot of Spanish Christmases now, I'd say that there are plenty of Christmassy Spanish things but that they are nowhere near as standardised as they are in the UK. Ask Spaniards what they are going to have for Christmas lunch and the answer will vary from suckling pig or lamb to sea bream and local dishes such as pine nut flavoured meat balls. Putting up the Nativity Scene is a big thing in some Spanish homes and in others it's simply another little seasonal routine. Plenty of houses have trees and many have lights too but if your Christmas house is no lighter and just as treeless as at any other time of the year then nobody would see that as being bah, humbug! In fact, so far as I know, there are no literary equivalents to that Dickensian story. Gift giving, gift exchanging, is nowhere near as widespread here as it is in the UK and if there are Secret Santa type things at work I've never come across them. The expectations of Spanish children for Christmas gifts seem to be far less demanding than their British peers. On the couple of occasions that someone has given me a Christmas gift, associated with my teaching, I've been really surprised. Charitable organisations, like the Red Cross, do produce Christmas cards and, if you know where to look, you can buy them. One year, when Corte Inglés didn't have any cards and I couldn't afford the UNICEF ones at the Post Office, I had the bright spark idea of going to the local office of the Red Cross to buy some. I kept about half a dozen bemused people mildly amused for about five minutes as I tried, in my variation of Spanish, to explain why I might want to buy Christmas cards as a way of donating to their organisation.
Finally, and almost incomprehensibly for most of the Britons I know, Christmas isn't really celebrated at the same time. For Spaniards the evening of Christmas Eve is big - the family gets together and eats. Christmas Day is Christmas Day and the family gets together and eats. The 26th is non event - Boxing Day is only the very routine St Stephen's Day. New Year's Eve is New Year's Eve with grapes and underwear and fizzy wine. Probably the liveliest day of Christmas is the evening of the 5th January when the Three Magic Kings deliver their gifts. The parades and the last minute shopping frenzy give it a feel very similar to Christmas Eve for we Anglos.