I’ve done it! Christmas in Spain, and what’s more, Christmas Eve in the heart of Madrid. I will endeavor to compare an American Christmas with a Spanish one, and give you a taste of the celebration here (I wish I could literally give you a taste; the food was absolutely spectacular!).
Because Spanish culture is quite secular, despite the fact that the majority are nominal Catholics, there isn’t much sense of Advent leading up to Christmas. And just like in America, there are some who treat Christmas as a burden. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with the cook in the teacher’s salon at school. “What makes Christmas any different from any other day of the year?” she bellowed (and I really do mean bellowed). I felt like Scrooge’s jolly nephew Fred in “A Christmas Carol.” I was taken aback. “Why, because it’s the day when Jesus was born! It’s a wonderful day!”
I was determined to keep Christmas, at least in my house. I begged Luis and Marta, my Spanish parents, for a real Christmas tree (have I mentioned how much I disdain fake Christmas trees?), so we piled into the car and drove to the pistachio fields, next to which is a grove of pine trees. To my surprise, Luis sawed off a few large pine branches and called it a day. But to our horror, we discovered a gooey tangle of caterpillar eggs wrapped in one of the pine branches. My pockets full of chestnuts I had picked from the ground, I retreated to a safe distance. We left that branch, of course, and gingerly packed the others into the car. Although we were attacked on the ride home by a host of ladybug beetles crawling out of the branches and clinging to the ceiling above our heads, it was worth the effort. Luis tied three of the branches together, and after decorating my Charlie Brown Christmas “tree,” it doesn’t look half bad. In fact, I’ve grown fond of it.
My little village house is now decorated cozily for Christmas, a taste of America in the middle of Spain. I had limited materials, I’ll admit, but it’s incredible what you can do with oranges, popcorn, pine clippings, string, a calligraphy pen, watercolor pencils, and (of course) some imagination.
A week ago Marta, Julia, Laura (the cousin) and I went to a nursing home where a friend of ours, Luis, brought his music group to play traditional Spanish folk music and Christmas carols. The sense of déjà vu was overpowering. All throughout my childhood I went each year to nursing homes to carol, and here I was again, sitting in a room full of elderly people fidgeting and telling each other to be quiet. This time, however, the music was played with tambourines, a drum and a flute, and instead of “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night,” I listened to traditional love songs (one of which was an ode to a beloved donkey) and Spanish Christmas carols.
On Friday the children from school had a Christmas performance. One of the pieces was a rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” performed by some of our English students. They handed me the mic to guide the students, who accompanied themselves with tambourines and triangles. After the first round, Marta (my Spanish mother and also the director of the school), Basilio (a college student currently working at school) and I entered the stage with reindeer horns and played an interlude, they on their bandurrias (a traditional instrument similar to a guitar) and I on the violin, after which “Santa Claus” waltzed in, broke up the Classical ambiance and took us away on the electric guitar. Certainly memorable!
But that wasn’t the only musical trick we had up our sleeves. Later that day, as all the teachers gathered at a restaurant for an end-of-the-year celebration, Marta and I excused ourselves and slipped out to the car to get our instruments. Moments later, Basilio came running like the wind to meet us and we all headed back to the restaurant to surprise the teachers with a rendition of the traditional song “Cielito Lindo,” a love song often played in Tunas. A Tuna is a group of (traditionally) male singers with bandurrias who are hired to go to a girl’s balcony and woo her, or to play at weddings and in universities. The tradition began when universities were first established in Spain (around the 16th century), as poor students paid the cost of tuition by playing publicly. Our spontaneous Tuna would not have had nearly as much success in America. If we entered an American restaurant and started playing, people would respond in various ways: stare at us strangely, smile and nod in time with the music, maybe clap. But in that Spanish restaurant, after sheets with the lyrics were passed out, everyone joined in the singing with gusto, and the restaurant quivered with rowdy familiarity and comradery.
On Christmas Eve we drove to Madrid (the province, not the capital) to be with Marta’s side of the family. Christmas lunch, eaten around 2:30, was absolutely spectacular: a soup of squid and potatoes. After lunch, we opened presents with Julia from “Santa.” Although Santa Claus is not a traditional figure in a Spain (in the past, the Three Kings have been more popular, celebrated on January 6), because of America’s influence he is now a common presence at Christmas.
That afternoon we boarded the sub that would take us to Madrid the capital to see the lights. For Julia’s sake, we visited “Cortylandia,” a glamorous display on the facade of a department store with singing polar bears and snowmen. In the Plaza Mayor of the city, we were greeted by long rows of stalls selling manger figurines and Christmas trinkets, while the walls of the surrounding buildings glittered with blue and white Christmas lights. Walking a little further into the city, we saw the large electric tree and, in the distance, the famous clock that chimes out the hour on New Year’s Eve.
Right before we boarded the sub to go home, we stopped at a street vendor’s stall for some roasted chestnuts, which are traditional at Christmas time. They were delicious: warm, soft, and faintly sweet, with a taste that reminded me of maple syrup.
Marta, Luis and I stopped at a bar after coming home to meet up with some of Marta’s old friends, and although I felt a bit out of place, it was interesting to observe the others talking, hugging, and drinking. Right behind me a couple sat at the counter, kissing passionately. All around me people asked for a second, a third, a fourth beer. And this, on Christmas Eve? This, when all my friends were sitting in a Christmas Eve service (my favorite service of the year), singing Christmas carols in the candlelight?
Christmas dinner was spectacular. I wasn’t a huge fan of the paté, a greyish-pink substance spread on toasted bread which, I found out (after trying it) is made from duck liver. However, the mushroom and gambón (gambones are large prawn) patty in carrot puree was mouth-watering, and the lamb was spectacular.
Christmas day itself was relaxing, as we had already opened presents the day before. I serenaded my Spanish family with American Christmas carols on the violin and then sat down to yet another spectacular Spanish feast, with cold lobster soup, chicken filled with dried fruit and walnuts and swimming in an apple salsa, and pineapple cake.
“Is your family as loud as we Spaniards are?” I was asked during the meal. “We frighten the French because we aren’t quiet or soft-mannered. “Yes,” I replied. “It feels like home. My family is neither quiet nor soft-mannered.”
Then followed the packing up, the goodbyes, and a three-hour car trip back to Moreruela. But although the festivities had ended, I wasn’t ready to be done with Christmas. Even after I had talked with my family and some of my close friends, I still felt something was missing. It’s hard to celebrate Christmas in a culture that really pays very little attention to Christ, despite the manger scenes. I felt empty; Christmas had been stripped of its sacredness. And I realized that it wasn’t just homesickness or loneliness I was feeling; I sensed the absence of the wonder, mystery and reverence that has always made Christmas my favorite season of the year. This ache in my heart couldn’t be filled by Hallmark movies, or snow (which is conspicuously absent here), or even family and friends and treasured traditions. I needed to direct my attention back to Christ. I felt as if I had just attended a birthday party without even congratulating the host.
I only had about one hour of Christmas left, but I was determined to savor it. I turned off the lights, made sure my tree was glowing, lit my candles, and knelt down with my Bible.
“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has a light shone…
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:2,6, English Standard Version).”
The candles flickered gently, piercing the darkness.
This Christmas I was confronted with a vivid paradox: the season of light, of life, of hope, riddled all over with despair. Angels heralding a Messiah, mocked by a rowdy cook who classified Christmas as a bothersome day of spending money and preparing food. The Savior has come; why doesn’t anyone see Him? After spending your whole life surrounded by a loving church community, it is strange to live in another country and realize you’re the only one around who actually approaches Christmas with reverence and awe.
But the incredible thing I realized in those moments of reverent solitude, was that it didn’t matter to me that no one else was celebrating the Savior on that holiest of days. He was there; His presence surrounded me in the dark room, flickering inside me like the flames of the candles and warming my numbed soul. I haven’t been inside an Evangelical church for months, and I haven’t met a single professing Christian here. But God’s Spirit is as alive in me as ever, as potent. That is, after all, the meaning of Christmas, isn’t it? Light in the midst of darkness. Fullness dwelling in emptiness, and shattering it. Creation being pulled toward hope, and peace, and joy, even in its decrepit state. It excites me to celebrate Christmas here, in this secular environment. I have joy, and peace, and hope. This year, more than any other year, I am aware of the darkness. And that makes the Light all the more potent.
“Why are you always laughing?” one of the boys from school asked me. Am I always laughing? Why yes, I suppose I am. We all have a reason to laugh this Christmas. Great, boisterous laughs, bubbling up from the core of our beings, laughs so vibrant that people around us stop to ask us what’s so funny. No, not funny. But incredible – oh, marvelous! Myriads of angels and light ricocheting across a black sky; shepherds treated as princes and a prince entering the world as the Good Shepherd, poor and scorned; social institutions toppled over and the masses singing in the streets; a virgin giving birth and prostitutes purified and praised…what could be more reason to laugh?