Photos by Karethe Linaae
Every Christmas when I was young, my mother would bring out her scratched Bing Crosby record and we knew the festive season had arrived.
Here in Spain, where the main celebration is el Dia de los Reyes on January 6, the lyrics don’t quite fit.
Although the month-long fiesta is felt far and wide as locals elbow their way down supermarket aisles with trolleys stacked to feed a small army, Christmas in Andalucia is quite another kettle of langostinos, a favourite seasonal treat.
While Northern Europeans may dream of a White Christmas, here (most of the time) we have no such chance.
There might be a dusting on faraway mountains – particularly in the appropriately named Sierra de las Nieves and the Sierra Nevada – but generally winter means camel-coloured landscapes and occasional downpours.
To get ourselves prepared, we normally hold a weather consultation with our 90-year-old neighbour, Antonio.
As our self-appointed meteorologist, he makes his predictions (believe it or not) from a wet blotch on the ancient Arabic city wall, near where we live in Ronda.
And this year, according to his expert opinion, there will be ‘poca agua’ at Christmas.
Back in my native Canada, Christmas muzak has been blaring out of malls since Halloween, a constant stress-inducing reminder of the upcoming festivities. It is the same in the UK.
Spanish shops meanwhile, rarely pipe in their own festive music, instead the main pedestrian streets in most Andalucian towns more than make up for it.
Named after an alleged snowball that once rolled down the street, loudspeakers on Calle La Bola, in Ronda, blast out pop-ified English carols with Spanish lyrics, traditional carols and the occasional Buble Christmas special (a remake of the remake).
Andalucia’s Christmas lights get more sophisticated by the year and might include an evening light show.
Otherwise, the decor is pretty modest. The shop’s window displays might have a Santa, a penguin with a toque or a few stars squeezed in between Iberian hams and sequined party dresses.
But step off any commercial street and one would think there is no celebration at all.
Be it due to the economy or tradition, the rural Andalucians usually have no Christmas decor outside their homes, with the exception of a red banner featuring a semi-nude baby Jesus.
A more pagan twist is to hang rope off your balcony with a Santa climbing up it or, in more religiously-inclined households, the Three Kings.
Most certainly ‘Made in China’, these escaping puppets are in some odd way so very Andaluz.
A lovely Christmas tradition common in many Catholic countries is the belen (nativity scene) and here in the Spanish south it has developed into an art form.
Our neighbour Jose Manuel proudly showed us his latest intricate production which has taken him months to build and covers half his patio.
Almost every Spanish home, church, brotherhood and bar will have a nativity display perfect in every detail, from miniature shepherds and tiny sheep to working waterfalls and stars in the East that light up.
A uniquely Andalusian Christmas tradition is the zambomba – a bonfire with jingle bells on when musicians and dancers crowd around braziers outdoors playing flamenco and villancicos (Spanish christmas carols) and keeping warm with mulled wine and shots of sweet anis liqueur. The tradition originated with Jerez’s gypsy communities and in the city today there are so many you can put together your own zambomba crawl.
The name comes from a peculiar sounding drum-like instrument that has become synonymous with Andalucian Christmas, and though an acquired taste, it wouldn’t be Navidad without it.
Designated drivers beware. A somewhat risque traditional is the Christmas minibar which local businesses offer clients.
I first noticed this generous booze and cookie display at our car dealership in Malaga. When renewing our insurance in December, we also encountered this free bar at our usually very responsible insurance agency.
I even spotted one in a hardware store, tucked behind the hunting knife stand (the shop also sells the aforementioned ‘three-kings-on-a-rope’ should anyone be interested).
Nothing like a breathalyser-busting tot of good cheer before driving off in the new car, taking out life insurance or revving up a power-saw.
During our first Spanish Christmas, a few years back, word got out that we would be alone for the holiday. Immediately friends and neighbours opened their homes to us.
On Christmas Eve, serenaded by howling winds, we celebrated with a local policeman, his wife, children, in-laws and miscellaneous family members.
Then on Christmas Day we joined the descendants of another neighbour, including his eight adult children and an old aunt with a lovely voice.
After eating, musical instruments appeared and everyone burst into villancicos composed by their great-grandfather, so they told me.
Braving the elements, we also went on their annual carolling visit to a local convent.
The door was locked (very biblical) but a sister eventually let us in to a chapel where cloistered nuns were singing Gregorian chants. Once they finished, our group strung our guitars and began carolling for the old nuns. It is a tradition the family has kept up for generations and it was a magical introduction to the true sense of navidad in our adoptive home country. As we ring in another Christmas season, make sure to enjoy some of these unique Andalusian holiday traditions – but watch out for those free minibars.