Including this one, I have spent a total of three Christmases away from home: the first I was working as an au pair in New York, the second I was on my first gap year with Andy and we were in Melaka in Malaysia and this time I am with Andy and the girls in Valencia. It is always a strange time, since you inevitably miss many of the very strong traditions from home, and you miss your family and friends, who you normally see and socialise with at this time of year. There is also that problem of it not feeling Christmassy when it is warm outside – for some reason it just doesn’t feel right to someone brought up in the UK!
We have been touring now for almost 6 months and we decided a while ago that we were not going to spend Christmas in the caravan. There are a lot of people out here in Spain who basically live here for months on end during the winter. The campsites are full of them – Brits, Germans, Dutch, French – all of them enjoying the warmer climate and touring around or just staying put in one area for months at a time. And some of them do it year after year after year. A lot of the campsites offer deals for over 55s who stay for 30 days or more and they can get pitch fees down to as low as €10 a night, including electricity. And if hauling your caravan all the way down here every year doesn’t appeal, don’t worry – some places will store your van when you’re not using it and also move it between campsite and storage for you. That means you don’t even need to own a car capable of towing.
In many of these semi-permanent communities, people had got lavish Christmas decorations up on their caravans or motor homes and around their pitch and so everything looked Christmassy. One campsite even had its own choir who met to practice once a week and were putting on a carol concert a few days before Christmas. BUT, what we kept hearing from many people was that although they were here in Spain until March or April, they were going to be somewhere else for Christmas and New Year. It started to look as though the campsites might be pretty desolate places to be for those few days so we decided to have a change of scene and treated ourselves to an apartment in Valencia. The girls have never spent Christmas away from home before and so we wanted to make sure the experience was special for them.
So how did we do? I could tell you it was all perfect from beginning to end, but that wouldn’t be quite true. I could tell you that none of us missed home, but that wouldn’t be true either. In reality there were tears. There were cries of “I just want to be back in our old house in my old bedroom,” and “I want it to feel like Christmas but it doesn’t feel at all Christmassy here.” And in those first 24 hours after arriving in Valencia, I did wonder how on earth we were going to turn it around and make it a good Christmas. Fortunately we did. By the time Christmas Day came everyone was happy and positive and glad to be here, but we did have a bit of a bumpy start!
My heart sank when we first got to our apartment. It was great, but it was an apartment that was really designed for living in a hot climate and as a result it was COLD. The lovely tiled floor that would keep you so cool in the summer was FREEZING under foot! We put all the heaters on straight away and waited for it to warm up, which it eventually did, although not the floor. The floor stayed so cold that we had to invest in slippers! I should explain at this point that although daytime temperatures in this part of Spain at this time of year are between about 13-20 degrees, overnight the temperature is much lower. As soon as the sun disappears behind the buildings, it can plummet to between 7 and 10 degrees, making the evenings and early mornings feel quite chilly.
The apartment also had bare, white walls and very little in the way of soft furnishings and so our first priority was to try to make it cosier and more Christmassy. But how could we do this without spending a fortune and without leaving marks on the walls? At first we thought we might make paper chains, but we were worried the Blutac would take the paint off the walls and ceiling. We haven’t seen much in the way of Christmas decorations here and in any case we didn’t want to spend lots of money on things that we would just throw away a few days later. At home for the past few years we have had a ‘gratitude tree’ onto which we would hang small cards on which we had written things that we were thankful for. So this year we had the idea to make a different version out of colourful post-it notes that we arranged on the wall in the shape of a tree and wrote our thanks on those. We also bought some curly ribbon in similar colours and hung that from every other surface that we could. The result was transformative! That little bit of decoration changed how we all felt about the apartment. It started to feel more Christmassy. It started to feel more like ‘home’. It started to feel less like a cold, bare apartment. And this was the turning point for all of our emotions too. It was going to be alright. It was going to be fun staying here for Christmas after all. We even found a ‘fireplace’ app and played it through the television to make it look like we had a log fire burning in the corner of the room. It sounds crazy, but it worked!
One of the girls’ biggest concerns was whether Father Christmas would be able to find them over here in Spain. And what would they use for Christmas stockings? We assured them that one of their biggest and stretchiest socks would do just fine, but they weren’t sure! Whether Father Christmas would get the gifts that they wanted and manage to deliver them to us in Spain as also one of our biggest concerns. We also hoped that he would understand that this year we needed small, lightweight gifts and not huge toys. We hoped he and his elves would be able to think of good ideas and get them sorted in time for Christmas. Fortunately all our fears were unfounded and the big man in red did not disappoint, not only finding the right apartment, but gaining entry without a chimney in sight! (He has a special key, apparently!)
Christmas Traditions in Spain
You may already have read my blog about Catalan Christmas traditions and their apparent obsession with poo, but what other traditions do they have and what do they do in the rest of Spain?
Here in Valencia there was no sign of Caga Tio in the shops or Christmas markets as there had been in Barcelona. There were plenty of nativity scenes, or Belenes as they call them here, with seemingly one in virtually every square as well as in churches, shops and markets. There were Christmas lights and trees in abundance too and the whole city was buzzing with families, couples and groups of friends out for a stroll or having a meal in one of the many lovely restaurants.
One of our first jobs when we arrived was to go food shopping since the shops close early on Christmas Eve and are then shut for 2 whole days! The Spanish tend to have their biggest meal of the year on Christmas Eve, when they really go to town and indulge in lots of expensive food, especially seafood. Lobster may be on the menu, along with a roast of some sort, usually lamb or suckling pig. Then there will be soup, plus cheeses, hams and pates. This is not a good place to shop if you are a vegetarian. We saw whole piglets vacuum packed in the chiller cabinets, which to our eyes was too much. You also see the whole legs of air dried Iberian ham everywhere, hanging from their trotters. To me, the smell was stomach-turning, but here they are highly prized and highly priced too. We had seen price tickets of €199 hanging from some, but then on Christmas Eve, shopping in the department store El Corte Ingles in the centre of Valencia (sort of equivalent to Selfridges food hall), we saw someone buying a whole leg priced at €289! In fact, the same man’s whole trolley of food came to an astonishing €1,025!
Then to follow the savoury courses, there will always be desserts and sweets, especially turron (nougat), which comes in all flavours and varieties. There will also be seasonal fruit such as mandarins as well as walnuts and dates and the shops are full of these in the weeks before Christmas.
After dinner, people apparently go out to visit friends and to party, and this is exactly what we observed. Guests arrived quite late on in the evening to the apartment next door to us, where they were having a big party with lots of music and singing that went on late into the night.
We chose to have a traditionally Spanish meal on Christmas eve, opting for some tapas followed by a huge seafood paella, all washed down with some cava. Then on Christmas Day, everyone wanted a taste of home, so we decided to have the traditionally English roast turkey. We managed to find a turkey without too many problems, but there was no sign of any of the trimmings so we had to make our own pigs in blankets and stuffing, but do without the cranberry sauce. We did find sprouts though, which was a huge surprise, and swede to have with our carrots, which was another surprise since normally here you only see turnip.
After opening presents on Christmas Day, we went out to Parc Gulliver in Valencia. This is an amazing park with a giant figure of Gulliver lying out on the ground, making us all seem like Lilliputians around him. Because it is so large, the adults as well as the children were enjoying the slides and climbing all over the structure. Lots of other families were out enjoying the sunshine, playing in the parks and strolling along the former riverbed that runs through the city.
Three Kings Day
On Christmas Day in the UK you often see young children out on shiny new bikes or roller skates that they received from Father Christmas. The same is not true in Spain since here children receive their gifts from the three kings, who don’t arrive until 5 January. This is why we haven’t seen much to do with Santa here: there are no Santa’s grottos with queues of excited children outside and no Christmas stockings in the shops or giant Santas climbing up buildings like you see at home. The arrival of the three kings is apparently a big event here and we are looking forward to seeing one of the parades wherever we are on 5 January. More about that to follow in a future blog post.
After our walk we chatted to friends and family back home via Skype or on the telephone and it was with mixed emotions that we saw and felt what we were missing at home. Our day was very relaxed since there were no pressures on it to be anything in particular and it was fun to be doing something different. In fact, the best way we found to describe what we felt was that we weren’t celebrating Christmas – this year we celebrated ‘Feliz Navidad’ instead.
The Spanish don’t have Boxing Day as such, but the day is a national holiday and shops and many restaurants are shut. Fortunately for us the metro trains were running, albeit on a reduced timetable. This meant that we could get down to Valencia’s beautiful beach for a walk. It was sunny and warm and not at all like our usual Boxing Day walk at home. The only difference was that we normally try to arrange a walk with friends and this time we were on our own…but not for long.
New Year with friends
Some friends of ours from home had arranged to meet up with us whilst we were in Valencia and they arrived on 28th December, for the start of a wonderful few days together. We had managed to find apartments in the same block and they moved in on the floor below us, bringing lots of Christmas cheer and unexpected presents with them!
For the next 5 days we had such a lot of fun – we walked for miles, exploring the old town of Valencia and some of the newer parts of the city with its futuristic architecture. We hired bikes and cycled along the Turia river bed, we ate paella and shared lots of meals and laughs together. We spent a day at the beach and visited the Museum of Rice where we learnt about rice growing and processing in the region.
Then on New Year’s Eve we had dinner together and played games, following which, at about 11pm, we wrapped up warm and headed out into Valencia to join in the festivities. The area around our apartment had been fairly quiet during the evening and as we set off we wondered whether there would be anything much going on. The tourist information office had told us there would be fireworks in the main square, Placa de l’Ajuntament, and so we headed for there. As we got closer, we just started to follow the crowds – there were lots of people all heading in the same direction and we soon found ourselves facing the town hall, listening to music being pumped out across the square. There was a very low-key police presence and a bit of security at the entrance to the square, but no-one was having their bags searched or anything like that.
There was a lovely atmosphere and it felt very safe and friendly, with people from all different generations out having fun. People were wearing tinsel and crazy party hats and were obviously having a good time. But we didn’t see too many people drinking, and there was no drunken behaviour around us. In fact, at one point two young lads came and stood in the space that was in front of where we were standing. They looked around and saw all the children and then moved themselves off to the side so that they weren’t blocking their view! Would young adults anywhere else have shown such consideration? I’m not sure they would!
New Year Grapes
Apart from that, it felt similar to new year celebrations all over the world: we were all gathered to collectively celebrate that second in which one year passes over into the next and to acknowledge the potential of a whole new year beginning. There was music, there was cheering and there were fireworks. What was different here was that there were grapes. Yes, grapes! In Spain the tradition is to try to eat 12 grapes in the time that it takes the clock to strike midnight. Each grape you manage to eat represents one month of good luck you will have in the following year. In the supermarket we had seen plastic champagne flutes with lids filled with 12 grapes just ready for the challenge. And all around us people were gathered with little bags or pockets of foil filled with their 12 sweet orbs. And when we say grapes in Spain we don’t mean the small, seedless kind that we have in the UK – that would be easy! Here the grapes are huge with massive seeds inside! It was great fun though, joining in with this peculiarly Spanish tradition. The first few were no problem, but as we approached 8 or 9 the crunch of the pips in my mouth was awful and I really slowed down. I think I managed 10 or 11 in the end!
It was all very sociable and people hugged and kissed not only their family and friends but also the people gathered around them. People wished us a happy new year and were then surprised, I think, to discover that we weren’t Spanish!
After this, we started to make a move as the children were very tired, but the party in the square just seemed to be getting going and many people were obviously staying on to party the night away. We got back to our apartment at about 12:35pm, leaving the city and its revellers behind. We spoke to our families and sent message to our friends just as we would do at home, knowing that they still hadn’t heard Big Ben ringing in the new year. It was very special having our friends with us and for them to have been a part of our big adventure. It is a new year I will never forget.
Reflections on Christmasses past, present and future
All in all, I wouldn’t want to spend every Christmas and New Year away from home, BUT I have really enjoyed seeing how they do it in another country. Here in Spain the whole thing is less commercialised and there appears to be less pressure on people to spend so much as there is in the UK. People (and shops) don’t tend to put their decorations up until after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8th December and so you don’t feel as though you are bombarded with it for months on end and I certainly liked that. But I did miss some of our wonderful traditions and I missed some of the build up to the big day with school Christmas productions and carol concerts and such like. And of course we missed our family and friends. But it is easy to look at all of that through rose-tinted spectacles too. What I didn’t miss was the immense pressure I usually feel at home to make everything ‘perfect’, the crazily busy last week of the school term and the pressure I usually feel to accept every social invitation that we receive even though it means that by Christmas Eve I am run ragged. And I am as much to blame as anyone since I am often the one who is trying to arrange to see virtually everyone I know in the week leading up to Christmas. Why do I/we do that?! Why not space out those get-togethers throughout January when there is nothing much else on? In future I think I would like to try to achieve a Christmas somewhere between the British one I am used to and the Spanish one I have experienced this year. Only time will tell if I manage to achieve it.
Finally, I would like to wish you all a very Happy New Year. Thank you for following our adventures and for all your comments and encouragement on the blog over the last six months. Please keep them coming as we really do love to hear that you are out there!