Spanish New Year

One of the more intriguing contrasts between Australia and Spain is how the New Year is celebrated. Last year, I was in Portugal, so I wasn’t able to experience a genuine Spanish New Year. But this year, I was fortunate enough to be invited to spend the evening with a friend and his family at their home in Madrid…

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At the beginning of the evening, things tend to be pretty normal. You sit around with the other guests, enjoying dinner and a few drinks, in the lead up to the big event.

Ho hum.

But at 11:45p.m., the preparations start in earnest. See, in Spain (unlike any other place on earth!), when the clock strikes midnight, there is a particular ceremony to be followed, namely The Ritual of the Grapes. The Ritual goes as follows:- as the clock rings each of its twelve times, the assembled multitude are required to eat a grape. So, by the end of the twelve chimes, you should have eaten twelve grapes. Each grape equates to a month of good luck, so eat them all, and you’ll have a lucky year.

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Now, let me assure you, having twelve grapes in your mouth is not as easy as it may look, especially when the official clock is chiming away every couple of seconds. For this reason, some people elect to “make things easier” (i.e. cheat) by peeling the grapes and removing the seeds, so that they “go down smoothly.” Or, if you’re REALLY lazy, you can buy a little packet of grapes, seeds and skin removed, and all ready to go when the time comes.

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This is how you can buy your grapes in the supermarket.

Seriously, this thing is a SCIENCE.

For my first year with the grapes, I was determined to have the genuine experience, seeds, skin, and all. As the clock approached midnight, I arranged my grapes, and prepared for the countdown (hosted on TV by a man who appeared to have taken style tips from Count Dracula- seriously, who on earth wears a CAPE nowadays?- and his glamorous assistant).

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At the first chime of the clock…nothing happened. See, for some bizarre reason, the official New Year grape clock in the Puerta del Sol chimes four times as a kind of warm up lap, before starting the official countdown. This is a trap for the unwary! Hold back, and don’t start eating the grapes before the TV tells you to!

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The official clock in the Puerta del Sol.

When it’s the REAL countdown, twelve grapes appear on the TV screen, and, with each chime of the clock, you eat one of your previously prepared fruits. The problem, I discovered, is that you don’t really have time to chew, so instead of eating the grapes, it’s more a case of storing them in your cheeks until you have time to chew them and digest them properly.

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The whole thing is treated with the seriousness of a military campaign, and it was positively surreal to watch my friend’s dad, his sister, and his brother lined up on the sofa, eyes glued to the TV, and arms moving in unison to deposit the grapes in their respective receptacles on each strike of the clock.

Miraculously, I managed to insert all the grapes into my mouth without gagging/vomiting/choking/otherwise requiring medical intervention, which means that I ought to have avoided a year of bad luck. But whether this will extend to managing to avoid having to eat the grapes next New Year, I’m not too sure…

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Grapes 10-12- “You stop wishing, and concentrate on not choking.” If only this was a joke.

What’s a Belén?

One of the things I was most looking forward to about Spain was seeing what it would be like to have Christmas in Europe. And one of the unique facets of a Spanish Christmas is the importance placed on the Belén.

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Belén

A Belén is a nativity scene, generally consisting of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus at the very minimum, but usually accompanied by shepherds, Wise Men, and a whole lot of other people and animals.

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Subversive Belén in Barcelona, complete with selfie taker

There seems to be an unwritten rule that one must do their best to make their Belén as fabulous as possible. For instance, the Plaza Major in Madrid was filled with stalls selling all manner of Belén necessities (think moss, bark, sculptures, small barns), whilst my school had its annual Belén making activity.

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Life size Belén in Zaragoza

To say it was competitive is the understatement of the year.

On the first day of December, each grade was told which part of the Belén was their responsibility. Year 6, being their final year, were told to make the three “main players” (Mary, Joseph and Jesus), whilst Year 5 were allocated the shepherds and Wise Men. I’m not too sure who decided that Year 4 would make windmills and bridges (were windmills even around 2000 years ago?), although I’m guessing that it was getting a bit difficult to think of different things that the kids could make by this stage!

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Note windmills

The children were then put in teams, and told to make their Belén things after school and on the weekend. Two weeks later, they brought them in. I was amazed at how much effort had gone into it. A lot of the kids (and parents, I’m guessing) had clearly spent ages making sure their cows looked just right and that the cloth on the Wise Men’s camels was precisely the right shade of blue (I’m serious).

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During the last week of school, the entire entrance foyer was turned into “Belén-land.” The Head Teacher (whose job seems to consist mainly of arranging festive decorations and parties) assembled a big collection of tables, covered them in sand (bags not cleaning up after…) and then the class tutors chose the best creations for the Belén.

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Whilst it looked great, I did feel a bit sorry for the kids whose figures were deemed “superfluous to requirements”. These offerings, which included a beautiful pink Barbie house (very nice, but anachronistic), some tables whose legs had broken off, and a couple of very creepy looking scarecrows (which may have been recycled from Halloween, I’m beginning to think) were banished to the library, where their indignant creators complained bitterly to each other that their work had been snubbed.

But I’ve got to admit, my favourite Belén figurine was the one below. I’m not too sure if a student, teacher, or parent made him, but I congratulate them for their sense of humour.

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The king!