IT’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The tell tale signs are all here- cosy coats, the kitsch jumpers, lots of lights, bows, Santa hats and, er, face masks.
This year marks my first Christmas alone and abroad, and every day my phone pings with a message from mum back home in snowy Scotland asking: “Do you feel it?” or “Have you felt it yet?” – it, of course, being that Christmassy feeling.
Maybe it’s only Brits who really succumb to it, somewhat inevitably after spending all year bottling up our emotions and not allowing our stiff upper lip to wobble. Or perhaps the weather is to blame? Following countless dark mornings and freezing nights cracking up the heating, it’s no wonder we’re scrambling for a cheerful reason to get out of our cosy beds by the time December hits.
And boy do we go all out. Brits do everything they can to feel ‘Christmassy’, hungrily searching for that maddening, swelling build up of emotion that causes us to spend too much money, coo at stranger’s children in Christmas jumpers and collectively lose our minds at the first whiff of pine tree.
Instead of skipping TV ads, we bring out the tissues and embrace a tsunami of emotion. We crave sentimentality, the sight of old friends in a pub, brisk cold walks and the warble of Mariah Carey.
This year, however, I’m in Spain and, frankly, I’m just not merry yet. Maybe it’s that I am still wearing SPF and the sun is still outshining the fair lights strung up around the palm trees. Or perhaps it’s the aforementioned masks dulling the Christmas sparkle.
Still, I’m determined to manifest that festive feeling in myself somehow and, so when the travel restrictions lift, I grab a pal and together we pledge to embark on an all-out hunt for Christmassiness.
We head to Malaga, one of Spain’s largest cities and a Mecca for all things Christmas. We’re told that the entire place has been transformed into a winter wonderland (or as close as we’ll get to one in the costa del sol) with ginormous arm ways stuffed with lights and more Christmas cheer than you could shake a candy cane at.
Visiting the Christmas lights in the midst of a pandemic is an odd choice, I’ll admit, and I had visions of all the streets being empty save for some reindeer dioramas and some tetchy Santas with empty laps, twirly their beards in boredom. Perhaps a stray piece of tinsel blowing like tumbleweed down an empty high street.
How wrong I was. For all the government’s advice that we should stay Ho Ho Home this December, the streets of the city were bursting with Christmas shoppers and glistening with consumerism at every turn. Any other year I would be choking up at the sight of happy families and the buzz of a Christmas crowd but instead my blood runs cold. This is the most people I’ve seen together in the street in almost 12 months and processing so many faces feels overwhelming. I pinch my mask a little higher and agree with my friend to keep to the quiet streets as best we can.
We start at the Taberna La Gloria, a chichi beer garden next to the Picasso museum. It’s Saturday evening and the place is thronged with a stylish young professional crowd, many drinking Baileys, barrelling through tapas at an alarming rate. Since all the bars and restaurants close at 6pm, we’ve got to work fast to order our gambas pil pil – but all I can think of is the mayhem that will descend at once the clock strikes 6. Like COVID Cinderellas we race away fast, leaving only empty G&T glasses in our wake.
We decide to take a stroll through the glittering arch of Christmas lights that illuminates Calle Larios and while everyone we meet is full of seasonal cheer, I still don’t feel ‘it’. The crowds make me feel anxious – I haven’t seen so many young people gathering in months – and I am eager to get back to quiet Estepona with it’s empty cobbled roads and socially distanced pensioners.
In fact, it’s not until a couple of days later, when I arrive back in my tiny flat in the old town of Estepona that I feel a familiar sense wash over me. I decided to lace up my running shoes and jog by the gorgeous white washed buildings glistening with fairy lights and tarted up in wreaths and bows.
It’s dark when I race towards Plaza del Reloj and the bandstand looks incredible, garbed up and bejewelled in thousands of twinkling white lights. Round the corner, hidden inside the crumbling remains of Castillo de San Luis I catch a glimpse of a glorious neon nativity before running towards Plaza del los Flores where dozens of gigantic sparkling baubles hang suspended midair.
I am cheered by the sound of a tinny brass band and a chorus of children’s voices rattling through the speakers on Calle Terreza and a stride further towards the beach front, not another soul in sight.
It’s then when I see him, a man in red shorts with a wiry white beard jogging along the promenade. Of course up close, he doesn’t look much like Father Christmas at all, but for a brief second my heart soared, believing in the potential magic of the moment I caught Santa on his nightly run.
“Hola,” he says as we pass one another, peeking up the gap between his cap and mask. I beam back at him, “Feliz Navidad!”
We may be running 6ft apart but finally I feel close to Christmas.