Monday, January 13, 2014

Nochebuena, Papa Noel, and a Snowless Christmas

I knew one day I wouldn't be able to come home for holidays; after all we all grow up, we all move away from home, and we all start our own lives.  I just never imagined the day would come so soon and that we would be separated by a whole ocean.

When I accepted the position to teach abroad in Madrid I made the conscious decision that I would not be home for Christmas.  Flight prices are so expensive this time of year, I didn't know if I would have my resident card in time, and it just seemed easier to stay in Spain to celebrate.
Christmas morning!
In retrospect, more convenient: yes, easier: no, rewarding and worth the experience: definitely.

While it was at times really hard being away from my family (a.k.a. on Christmas Eve I might have cried the whole bus ride home from the downtown area...), I was extremely lucky to be invited to spend the holidays with my boyfriend's family in Santander and had a home away from home.  Plus the added bonus that I got to see what Christmas was like as part of a Spanish family.

One of the things that pleasantly surprised me the most was the extent of the public Christmas decorations.  In both Madrid and Santander there were Christmas lights on all over the main streets and plazas; I was amazed when December hit and the streets were lit up every night.  While Madrid, as the capital, certainly had more lights I still found those in Santander impressive.
Town Hall of Santander

The plaza of the Ayuntamiento of Santander was lit up with tree lights, the reyes magos (wise men), and reindeer; not to mention the carousel and Mercado de Navidad in the Plaza de Pombo.  I guess I found all the holiday decorations strange becauses of all the controversy at home about decorating for Christmas and excluding other holidays.  It's become such a taboo subject in some public places like schools that I was not used to so much "Christmas", but being away from home I loved all the extra holiday spirit!

One tradition that was definitely new for me was Tardbuena. When December 24th roles around all the young (drinking age) people, at least in Santander, celebrate Tardebuena.  Before having dinner and spending the evening with their families, they spend the afternoon drinking at different bars with their friends.  And when I say the afternoon I literally mean from noon to seven bar hopping decked out with noisemakers and santa claus hats.

When I asked my friends about this tradition they said it's something that is a relatively recent addition to their holiday celebrations, maybe five or so years old.  While it may just seem like typical Spain going out and partying, it's more than just getting drunk before your family dinner.  It's about including your friends in your holiday celebration and celebrating being a "family" with them.

I found on my first Tardebuena that it was the perfect way to fit in 'friend-time' during the busy family holiday season.  Unfortunately for us though, and in true Santander fashion, Tardebuena ended in a rain-out as we tried to run to the bus stop without being soaked.  I failed and made the bus looking like a wet dog...

My second Spanish family
After everyone goes home, or is picked up, the real Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) celebrations began.  Finally, with dry hair, I got dressed for the night and we all went to my BF's grandfather's house in a village just outside of Santander.  Unlike most holiday celebrations at home there were not appetizers served while everyone was waiting around for dinner to be cooked, you just have to be patient and wait for food (very un-Spanish!)  This wait is even more noticeable by the fact that dinner was not served until 10:00 pm, an ungodly dinner hour for most Americans.  But absolutely worth all the delicious Spanish foods!

[If you want to learn about some of the traditional Spanish Christmas treats read this post by blogger Cat from Sunshine and Siestas: A Field Guide to Spanish Christmas Treats, I particularly like marzipan and turrón the most.]
A little piece of home!
When we did finally commence eating, our first plates were: langostinos (prawns/large shrimp), pâté, anchovies, cured lomo, salad, and of course piles of bread.  I'm not a huge fan of pâté or anchovies, but I love langostinos and I had a super Spanish lesson on how to peel them with a knife and fork.  I'm proud to say that I was mostly successful!  After the first plates came the meats: cochinillo (suckling pig/piglet) and cordero (lamb).  And finally dinner was followed by New York style Blueberry Cheesecake from the BF's cousin, assorted Christmas cookies I made with the family, and drinking and games until four in the morning...  I kid you not.  Let's just say this grandma started to fall asleep after midnight.

Christmas morning after waking up, not so bright and early, we gathered around the Christmas tree to open our presents from Papa Noel.  Papa Noel is very similar our 'American' Santa Claus and is a relatively new part of the Spanish holiday traditions.  In fact, many of my students and friends still receive most (if not all) of their presents from the Three Wise Men on the Epiphany on January 6th.  Nowadays in the BF's house they give most of the presents on Christmas and only a few on the Epiphany.
Christmas boxer sharing the spoils
Our piles of presents were all sorted and marked by our respective slippers, and like at home, we each took turns opening the gifts.  The BF's family was super sweet and even had some presents for me!  It was really thoughtful because I thought I was only going to have the gifts that I had gotten when my mom put Christmas money in my account for presents.

After the present extravaganza was finished we got ready to head back to their grandfather's house for Christmas day lunch.  We all filled up on more langostino, baked pasta, more meat, and leftover desserts from the night before.  Part of the family's holiday tradition was that after every Christmas day lunch the cousins all go out to the cinema to catch a movie, so while we digested we caught a showing of the second part of The Hobbit.

But even though "Christmas" was technically over, the celebrations were not.

Every year the BF and his friends have a Christmas dinner where they get dressed up, go to a nice restaurant for a special menu, and participate in Secret Santa.  Since this was my first Christmas here it was also my first year to be a part of the festivities.  Luckily I was given a good friend and I surprised her with a hand-knitted hat and jewelry.

This year we had the dinner on the 28th, the holiday of 'Día de los Inocentes,' the Spanish equivalent of April Fool's Day.  Let's just say the waiters' had a lot of fun making jokes when they were serving us...  The food was good, the wine was flowing, and it really meant a lot to feel like a part of the group.  As the 'foreigner' in a group it can be easy to feel left out even if no one means it: someone tells an inside cultural joke that you don't get because you didn't group up there, a song from the 80's comes on and the whole bar starts rocking out without you, etc.  

But my point is, that it's days like that Christmas dinner when you see the effort someone took trying to buy you the perfect present (an assortment of baking supplies, cupcakes for everyone!), that you realize just how much you're loved.  And that's when I realized everything.  

I was home for Christmas.  It just took a while to realize you can have more than one.

How was your Christmas?  Do you have any special holiday traditions?

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