Here in the mountain villages little has changed since medieval times. Oh yes, we have televisions and cars and mobile phones, but they have been sort of added on to the existing way of life, a thin veneer, disguising the old ways. It is not unusual to see a young peasant farmer talking into his phone as he rides his donkey, laden with vine cuttings, along the winding tracks.
Spain is a Catholic country. We are not talking about modern, erudite Catholicism here. This is the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, closely linked to the agricultural cycle. Colourful, exuberant, full of life.
Christmas here, until very recently, had nothing to do with Santa Claus. Here it is the three kings who bring the presents, and they don't bring them on Christmas Eve, they bring them on 5th January, the eve of epiphany, traditionally the day when the three kings brought the gifts to the baby Jesus.
Our Christmas season begins with a wonderful nativity play in the village of Almayate.
Every year the entire village takes part in this event which is held in the school sports field. An entire scene of ancient Israel is re-created, with live cattle, sheep, goats, hens, etc.
The evening performance is particularly spectacular as the scene is lit with bonfires and one by one little cameo scenes are lit up with spotlights to reveal the angel announcing the coming birth to Mary, or Herod interviewing the three kings.
The story goes that there is tremendous competition in the village to produce a baby at the right time to play the infant Jesus.
Christmas day itself is not particularly exciting. There are, of course, no presents yet. And the family generally goes out for lunch in one of the numerous county inns which seem to exist solely for the purpose of providing enormous Sunday and holiday meals. We are talking about the whole family here, mother, father, children, grandparents, uncles, aunties, cousins. Traditionally, there is a lot of fish in the Christmas lunch menu. Not a turkey, Christmas pudding or mince pie in sight.
New Year is far more important. The whole village gathers in the village square in front of the church and everyone is given a glass of sparkling wine and a party bag with a hat, streamers, squeakers, sweets (candy) and, most importantly, twelve grapes. As the church bells chime midnight, you have to eat a grape for each chime. It is surprisingly difficult to manage this. You end up with a mouthful of unchewed grapes and often still la couple left in the bag. It's supposed to be lucky for the year ahead if you can eat them all in time. Last year was the first time I managed it and in March my first book was accepted for publication. So there you are. I'm getting into practice right now to get it right again this year. It would be really nice to sell some books. Sorry, I digress.
The climax for the children is Los Reyes – The Kings. In the early evening of 5th January, the three kings come riding into the village on their donkeys, each accompanied by a servant. Sometimes Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and an assortment of angels come too. It rather depends how many people are available. The procession winds its way up and down all the village streets and as it goes the kings throw sweets into the crowd. Eventually it arrives at the village square and the kings dismount and sit on the steps ready to give out presents to the waiting children. Every child has a present with his or her name written on it and the kings' servants read out the names one by one.
Later in the night when everybody is in bed, the kings visit every house and leave even more presents. In the olden days each child would leave a shoe outside the bedroom door and the kings would put the present in the shoe. Now, I suspect nobody would have shoes large enough to contain the dozens of gifts each child receives.
The children don't have much time to play with their presents before they have to go back to school, but at least they don't have long to wait for the next holiday – San Anton and the blessing of the animals. But that is a story for another day.
About the Author: Jenny Twist was born in York and brought up in the West Yorkshire mill town of Heckmondwike, the eldest grandchild of a huge extended family.
She left school at fifteen and went to work in an asbestos factory. After working in various jobs, including bacon-packer and escapologist’s assistant, she returned to full-time education and did a BA in history at Manchester and post-graduate studies at Oxford.
She stayed in Oxford working as a recruitment consultant for many years and it was there that she met and married her husband, Vic.
In 2001 they retired and moved to Southern Spain where they live with their rather eccentric dog and cat.
Visit Jenny at her website.
Leave a comment to be entered into a drawing for a pdf or Kindle copy of the winner's choice from Jenny's books: Curious Hearts, Domingo's Angel, Spellbound 2011, Take One At Bedtime and Warm Christmas Wishes.