Reports From The Road, Travel

Report From Spain #8

January 27, 2012

Christmas and New Year’s in Spain

When we returned to Marbella from England it felt as though the town had changed in the five weeks we were gone. The Old Town, which was vibrant when we left, was eery in its emptiness. Every day when we went out for a walk another store, cafe or restaurant had closed down. One day a cafe was filled with people, the next it was closed with a for sale, or for rent sign, on the window.

One shop owner who had sold luxurious silk clothes for twenty years told me she’d have to close by the New Year if a miracle didn’t happen. Our always optimistic friend Teresa at the real estate office said she hadn’t seen things this bad in over twenty years. The tourists simply weren’t there.

Things picked up the week before Christmas. School children practiced singing for a performance, the food shops were packed and there were huge bins filled with multiple kinds of the special Christmas treat turron; a nougat made of honey, sugar, egg white and toasted almonds.

In the park young children lined up to see Father Noel, while the adults lined up to purchase a ticket for El Gordo, The Fat One, the biggest lottery worldwide and one of the oldest having started in 1812. Last year’s prize pool totaled over two billion euros. Tickets are expensive (200 euro) but you can buy a portion of a ticket for 20 euro.

The drawing unfolds over many hours on December 22nd, with people glued to their radios and TV’s to see if they have a winning number. 98% of the people in Spain purchase at least one portion of a ticket. Besides three big prizes there were thousands of smaller prizes so there was a good chance to win something.

Christmas Eve is a big celebration and most families gather for a feast before going to Midnight Mass. Christmas Day is a holiday but not as important in Spain. We were surprised to find our favorite restaurant opened on Christmas Day with its usual three course, 9 euro lunch special, where we enjoyed a meal with our friend Katy. If we had eaten at the restaurant on Christmas Eve the meal would have been 50 euro each.

Children receive a token gift from Father Noel (Santa) on Christmas Day, but they have to wait for rest of their gifts until the Fiesta de Los tres Reyes Mages (the festival of the three Magic Kings), celebrated on the twelve night after Christmas, January 6th, the day when the three Kings gave gifts to Jesus.

In Spain, and in most of Italy and Southern France, traditional Christmas decorations consist of a large model of the city of Bethlehem, not just the nativity manger scene, but the entire village of Bethlehem; buildings, towns people, animals, homes, stalls selling meat and produce, planted gardens, fields (made with real grass), and sometimes a running river and live miniature trees. These scenes can be huge, often taking up an entire room. The one in the main Church must have been 20 feet long and 10 feet deep – bigger than some places we’ve lived.

In the north of Spain, most commonly in Catalonia, there’s an unusual small figurine placed in these elaborate nativity scenes; el Caganer (the great defecator), a Catalan peasant, farmer or shepherd with his trousers down who defecating somewhere in the nativity scene. As you can imagine, kids love looking for the Caganer.

The Catalans have modified this tradition a good deal since the 1940s. In addition to the traditional Caganer design, you can easily find other characters assuming the Caganer position, such as nuns, devils, Santa Claus, celebrities, athletes, historical figures, politicians, even Spanish and British royalty and Barack Obama.

In 2005, the Barcelona city council provoked a public outcry by commissioning a nativity scene which did not include a Caganer. Many saw this as an attack on Catalan traditions. The local government countered these criticisms by claiming that the Caganer was not included because a recent by-law had made public defecation and urination illegal, meaning that the Caganer was now setting a bad example.

Following a campaign against this decision called Salvem el caganer (Save the Caganer), and widespread media criticism, the 2006 nativity restored the Caganer, who appeared on the northern side of the nativity, near a dry riverbed. The exact origin of the Caganer is unknown, but according to the Friends of Caganer group (yes, there really is one), it’s believed to have entered the nativity scene by the late 17th or early 18th century. One possible reason for placing a figure in the act of defecating in a holy scene is that the feces fertilizes the earth and this symbolizes a good harvest year. The Caganer also represents the equality of all people: regardless of status, race, or gender, everyone defecates. Some think they were added as a humorous allusion to the Spanish proverb, “Dung is no saint, but where it falls it works miracles.”

The Caganer is not the only defecating character in the Catalan Christmas tradition—another is the Tio de Nadal (the Christmas log, also known as Caga Tio – the pooping log). The small hollow log, propped up on two legs, has a smiling face painted on it. From December 8th (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception) Catalan families “feed” the log a few morsels of food to “eat” and cover it with a red blanket to keep it warm.

On Christmas Eve, people sing songs and hit the log with sticks to help its digestion and the log poops sweets, nuts, and dried fruits. When garlic or an onion falls out of the log, all of the treats are finished for the year.

We searched the town of Marbella for Caganers and a Tio de Nadal but to our great disappointment we were too far south to find either tradition in Andalusia, but I did find little figurines of boys peeing in the Christmas section of the local Chinese shop.

New Year’s Eve is called “Nochevieja” or “The Old Night” and at midnight you’re supposed to eat twelve grapes, one with each gong as the bell strikes midnight. Each grape represents a month of the coming year, so if you eat all twelve before the bells stop ringing your whole year will be lucky. We didn’t stay up to see this, but our friend Katy went to Orange Square just before midnight and found it packed with people ripping open plastic bags of grapes. A concerned Spanish woman saw Katy didn’t have any grapes and forced her to take some of her grapes and start stuffing them down, “You don’t want to have bad luck,” said the woman. It’s also customary to wear red underwear on New Year’s Eve. A small village near Valencia has taken this tradition one step further – villagers of all ages run through the streets wearing just red underwear.

The Three Kings are revered in Spain. On the day before Epiphany, January 5th, there are processions all over Spain and sweets are thrown from the floats. We missed this event but we heard it can get quite wild and people bring umbrellas to protect themselves from the hard candy being thrown from the floats. One young Spanish man told us he and his brother brought umbrellas to the procession when they were young for a completely different reason, “We figured out if we turned the umbrellas inside out we could catch even more candy. We ended up with buckets full.”

On Epiphany Eve children leave their shoes filled with straw, carrots, and barley on the windowsill, balcony, or under the Christmas tree. The Wise Men’s animals eat the offerings and leave presents in return, or some pieces of coal made out of sugar if the child has been bad. The children’s favorite Wise Man is Balthazar who rides a donkey and is the one believed to leave the gifts. January 6th is the big day for the children when they get to open all their gifts. The next day they are back at school.

During the holidays we read that a new marina at the little fishing port, just down the beach from our apartment, had been approved. The owner of the Malaga Football Club, Sheik Abdullah Ben Nasser Al-Thani, from Qatar, will self finance the 100 million euro project. The Marbella Town Hall will own a three per cent stake in the consortium.

They start building the marina this year. It will take four or five years to complete the 200m quay for cruise ships, space for 1,220 moorings for yachts, as well as space for two mega-yachts. The Sheik’s company will make the port deep enough to accommodate multiple cruise liners of up to 175 meters long, which are capable of holding up to 500 passengers each.

The second phase of the project includes a large commercial zone with a five-star hotel, new bars, restaurants, shops and supermarkets and underground parking for 450 cars and an “updated” version of the existing fishing port. The massive project is described as “the most important urban development” in Marbella’s history and is seen as the first phase in revamping the whole town of  Marbella into a “mature resort town.”

Cruise ships bringing in hundreds of tourists at a time will drastically change Marbella. The narrow walkways in the Old Town get crowded when a small tour of twenty people try to walk through them. But an empty Old Town can’t sustain itself either. Marbella is a city, but a small one, and I worry that it will end up like Dubrovnik, Croatia, a beautiful old city that is now overrun with thousands of ice cream eating cruise ship passengers.

We tend to find great places right before a big change happens, like when we stayed at the Beat Hotel on Rue Git-le Couer in the Latin Quarter of Paris in November of 1990.

Cradoc and I were at the beginning of a year long trip around Europe. Our budget was tight and we were excited to find a decent hotel in Paris for $40 a night. As we checked in the man behind the desk said, “You know this was the Beat Hotel.”

The woman who owned the hotel came out and said, “Yes, Allen Ginsberg was just here last month to visit us again.”

In the 1950’s and early 1960‘s the Beat Hotel was the cheapest and dirtiest hotel in Paris and artists, writers, and musicians made a home at the bohemian refuge, including the Beat authors William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg who wrote a great deal of their work at the Beat Hotel.

We loved the location of the hotel and after a few days we tried to extend our stay but the owner said, “As a matter of fact you are our last guests. As of tomorrow we’re closing to remodel. We need a loan from the bank and they won’t give us the money unless we upgrade the hotel.”

At breakfast on the final day we were served our hot chocolate and croissant and the owner opened a bottle of Champagne to toast the end of another era.

After the renovations our cheap one star hotel became a four star hotel with framed photos of the famous Beatniks on the wallpapered walls. The rates at the old Beat Hotel are now between $250 and $600 a night. No more cheap sleeps along the Rue Git Le Couer.

We had no luck extending our visa to stay in Spain (although the local police told we could just stay…) and when we got hit with allergies we decided to leave Marbella after the New Year and return in mid-March when our new visa period started again.

On our way to the airport we asked the taxi driver what the people of Marbella felt about the new marina. “It is a mixed blessing,” he said. “We don’t want this kind of project here. They need to tear down all the industrial buildings along the water, many local people will lose their businesses. But the marina will provide work for many people, they say 1,500 jobs, but things will never be the same here.”

His words made me think of the last lines of an Eagles song called, The Last Resort.  “You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye…”

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