Newsletter December 2012
Popular destinations in Spain

Typical Spanish

Typical Christmas Decorations in Spain

By the time you receive this newsletter we will already be in the midst of the advent season (the period leading up to Christmas), so it is very likely that in the Spanish city nearest to you they have already put up the typical Christmas decorations or something resembling them. I mention ‘something resembling them’ because in some places the lights are so colourful and of such varying designs that it looks more like we are preparing for Mardi Gras instead of celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus. Behind closed doors inside the Spanish houses something similar can be seen too: the decorations are either more traditional or more modern in their nature. All this being so, visiting different houses in Spain or taking a walk through the streets can be an experience that may leave you with some doubts or questions that you don’t want to ask through fear of offending the person who decorated the house or the inhabitant of the town or city. We have made a list of these questions and attempted to respond to them in the simplest way possible.

Why are we Spanish so crazy about tinsel? As you know, tinsel is a strip of paper or fine plastic used to decorate Christmas trees. But we Spaniards don’t just stop there, we continue to put it in the most unexpected of places in order to fill our houses with Christmas spirit: for example, over the picture frames, the tables... one of our web editors even remembers with dread the time when she returned to her bedroom and found the cable of the mouse for her computer wrapped in tinsel.

tree-nativity scene

Can you have either a Christmas tree or a nativity scene in your house at Christmas? The answer: "yes", you can even have both of them. However, the truth is that most of the time people will choose one or the other for reasons of space: people who live in a small house always prefer to put up a tree; as do families that have pet cats (as the various parts of the nativity scene could disappear) or families with small children (so that, for example, a Pikachu figurine doesn’t make a guest appearance at the birth of Jesus).

What differentiates a "nativity scene" from a "birth scene"? Many Spanish people also ask themselves this question. The answer is simple: whilst a nativity scene is a complete scene in which you can often see buildings, figures of shepherds, Romans and other townsfolk; the "birth scene" sticks to a representation of just the "Sacred Family" and, very often, the Three Wise Men. Historically, the nativity scene also showed other events from the gospel that contains the birth of Christ.

What are the ox and the mule doing in the nativity scene? In many birth and nativity scenes you will find the Sacred Family accompanied by an ox and a donkey. Why are they there? Some people say that they represent recognition of the divine power of the main economic stratum at that time, farmers and cattle breeders; others believe that it is an allusion to the meek and mild animals that will inherit the land; and others think that they represent the sun and the moon, old gods kneeling down before the new one. What is certain is that few people ever ask the significance of their presence and most have adopted them fondly.

Why do some people put up window hangings with images of the baby Jesus? You will notice that in the windows of some houses people have hung up red coloured tapestries featuring an image of the little baby Jesus. You might think that this is an old tradition, but that is not the case: it is a custom that is barely a few years old. It began in 2004 and it is thought to have been initiated as a way for particularly religious houses to counteract the spread of the climbing Santa Clauses that you will see on balconies. The funny thing is that, in some houses, you will be able to see both of these decorations: perhaps as a way of avoiding confrontation between grandparents and grandchildren.

Why, in some houses, is their not a star on top of the Christmas tree? If you are somebody who feels that a Christmas tree is not complete without a star at the very top, you will be surprised to hear that in Spain, in some houses, they do not put it on. Some people will be able to explain to you the curious reason why this is so: according to superstition, to crown a Christmas tree with a star brings bad luck. The origin of this omen may be uncertain, but there are a lot of people who believe it.

birth scene

Why do some nativity scenes include a figurine "evacuating"? In the nativity scenes in Valencia, Catalonia and sometimes in Murcia and the Canary Islands, there is often placed a figurine "doing their business". It is known as "cagon" or "caganer" (the "pooper"). The tradition is to place it in a hidden part of the nativity scene such as behind a shrub or a wall and supposedly the figurine brings luck to your house. It is not the only Catalan Christmas tradition where defecation is featured: in many homes they will also have a log called "Tió de Nadal" ("Christmas log") who is fed with sweets in the days coming up to Christmas and when Christmas day arrives he is beaten with a stick and obliged to "expel" these treats so that the children can enjoy them.

What are live nativity scenes all about? This is a pleasant tradition that is organized in many towns and now and then in some cities. The locals dress up as characters from the nativity scene and reenact the birth of Christ. Some of the most spectacular recreations, for example the one which takes place in Buitrago de Lozoya (Madrid), convert the whole town into a mini Roman-time Judea. Regarding the show in itself, mention must be made of the commendable organization and dedication of the actors, who withstand the cold winter temperatures often in only a tunic or toga.

Why are there more and more "electronic" Christmas trees appearing? It is not known whether it is due to increasing environmental awareness, the movement into a more technologically orientated era, or to save gardening costs; but it certain that more and more town and city squares are replacing natural Christmas trees with pyramid shaped light installations (supposedly representing a pointed fir tree). In Salamanca it is currently the custom to have an electronic tree and in Madrid in the last few years you can also see one of these "electronic trees" which, in a display of pop art and electronic gaming, simulates a game of Pac-Man.

We won’t lie to you, if you spend the Christmas period here, you will certainly have more questions, but at least we have now given you the answers to some of the more obvious ones. Some questions simply don’t have an answer, so, for this year at least, you remain in the dark.

Featured City

Barcelona: Santa Llucía Market

This is one of the oldest Christmas markets in the world, set up in the same place, surrounding the Santa Cruz Cathedral in Barcelona, since 1786. This means, more than 200 years dedicated to the sale of all types of figurines, adornments and objects with which to deck your house at Christmas time, Traditionally the market began on the 13th of December, but with time and, most likely, the influx of tourists and natives, the opening has been moved forward to the last week of November. So, if you happen to be reading this and you want to visit it, you can easily go for a few hours this afternoon. Or, if you are not in Barcelona, you have until the 23rd of December to do so.

Being the traditional market that it is it has a festive and even somewhat chaotic air about it. But don’t be deceived or panicked by the crowds: everything is very well organized and divided into sections dedicated to whatever it is that you need to buy. This means that we will find the first zone dedicated entirely to decorations for Christmas trees and nativity scenes, such as figurines amongst which you will be able to see the infamous "caganer", then in the following section you will find the plants for the birth scenes, Christmas trees (both natural and artificial) and the renowned "tiós de Nadal" (Christmas logs that are filled with sweets); then the third section is dedicated to handcrafts and jewellery and the fourth, to drums, tambourines and other musical instruments.

Santa Llucía Market
Santa Llucía Market

This system is championed by many who think that it is a good idea if you know what you need, have come with a specific aim and you don’t want to stress yourself out in searching for the correct stall; but, it also has its critics, who feel that so much organization does away with the charm of discovery and the "thrill of the chase".

Having told you what you can find there, we recommend that you don’t miss out on this market, even if you aren’t going to buy anything. It is worth it just to see something so typical at the feet of something as majestic as the Cathedral. A visit to Barcelona at Christmas time would be incomplete without a wander through its stalls.

Famous Person

The Clock in the Puerta del Sol

Ok, so it isn’t really a person, but in the final seconds of the 31st of December and the first few seconds of the 1st of January this clock appears to develop its very own character. Every year its voice marks the end of one year and the beginning of the next and the fact that it is located directly in the centre of Spain adds a certain mysticism to its appearance even though, it is not very likely that in the culminating moments of New Year’s Eve, anybody will be getting very philosophical.

Ah, yes, we had forgotten: it is thanks to the ringing bells of this clock that we eat the twelve grapes of New Years Eve. One of our country’s most emblematic traditions and one which is a great challenge for our concentration, coordination, breathing, deglutition and hearing.

The clock of the Puerta del Sol – which few people might know, is also known as "the clock of the Government" – was donated by its manufacturer, José Rodríguez Losada, a Spanish watchmaker who had settled in London and it was inaugurated on the 19th of November 1866 by Queen Isabel II. It didn’t look exactly the same as we know it today as the metal part that crowns the clock and contains the metal ball that drops to cause the bells to peal every New Year’s Eve was added a year later.

The linking of the clock with the pealing of the bells is the subject of much discussion and debate. The official start date of the tradition is said to be 1909 and the place Elche; but some people claim that it all began at the very feet of our subject in 1896, when a group of young boys decided to mock the bourgeoisie custom of drinking champagne and eating grapes on New Year’s Eve. In the years that followed the joke was repeated with more and more participants, until it became tradition. But, as television did not yet exist we cannot safely say that this famous Spanish clock was the one that first united Spaniards in this celebration.

Clock Puerta del Sol
Clock Puerta del Sol

It was in 1962 when the twelve strikes of the bell were first televised in Madrid for all of Spain to see. Only on one occasion has the Puerta del Sol clock missed out, that was in 1973 when it was "substituted" by the clock of the city council of Barcelona (at the date of publication we are continuing to investigate why this was). Whatever happens, it is very likely that, even if it is not televised, the same crowds as always will gather at the feet of this Madrid landmark.

As you might have expected, in order to be exactly on time a complete inspection and tune-up is required, however, the clock still maintains 98% of its original parts and is in very good repair generally. This job, since 1997, has fallen to the master watchmakers of the "Casa Losada" ("House of Losada"), who also continue to use their own little, lesser known tradition, but that has its faithful followers: the practice pealing of the bells. At 12 o’clock at night, between the 30th and 31st of December and at 12 o’clock midday on the 31st, they carry out practice run with the dropping of the ball with bell ringing included. A curious thing is that for both the practice and the real thing more and more people are turning up and eating sweets, pieces of chocolate or segments of mandarin oranges. Are we witnessing the beginnings of a new tradition? Only time will tell.

Think about it, if the theory we have mentioned is true, this clock has been bringing in the New Year for the past 116 years, and even if it doesn’t happen to be correct, we can be certain that it has been doing it for the past 50...and it still works! Who says that responsibilities wear you down.

Spanish recipe

Differences between the different types of turrón (is the three chocolate kind really turrón?)

Although you may have seen them appearing on the supermarket shelves since the end of October, turrón is something typical of Christmas time: On practically every Spanish table at this time of year there will be a tray with pieces of sweet turron...or is it? It is something that is quite complicated to explain, so we will update you on the situation: If you go to a shop or supermarket you will see various types of turrón such as that of Alicante, hard and whitish; the one from Jijona, brown and oily; the "yema" type (a sweet made with egg yolks and sugar), golden and spongey; a fruity one, of different colours and smooth...and a whole variety that ranges from catalan cream flavoured turron to chocolate to vanilla with rose petals (I am not even kidding, last year this existed). Up to this point everything sounds good, as there is something for every taste, but the problem is that some people feel the only versions that truly deserve to be called "turrones" are those from Alicante and Jijona, because they are the most traditional; for this group of specialists, the rest are simply sweets, pralines or slightly modified marzipans.

The problem intensifies when you consider the number of households that don’t like almonds (a basic ingredient of the traditional turrón), or they consider the turrón from Alicante to be about as tasty as a piece of plaster and the turrón from Jijona to be an oily, greasy dough, and so the only option are the turrones that by some are considered "false". Does this family, then, have a lack of Christmas spirit? The answer is a difficult one and would probably start off by citing that oft quoted Shakespearian question of whether a rose by any other name was still a rose?

Turrón Alicante
Turrón Jijona

Turning to the Real Academia (the official Royal institution responsible for regulating the Spanish language) doesn’t make things any easier either as in their definition of turrón they state that in order to make it, it is necessary to use almonds, pine nuts, hazelnuts or walnuts, toasted and mixed with honey and sugar. So, although this definition won’t stretch to some of the more unorthodox versions, it would mean that a bar of marzipan would in fact be a turrón or the "guirlache Aragonés" (an almond toffee creation from Aragon.), which despite meeting this definition, is considered simply as a sweet.

The same could be said with regards to turrón ice cream. Is it not really just an ice cream of almonds and honey? If you are eating it in the middle of summer is it still so "typical? Why, then, is it not right to consider as turrón something as un-Christmassy as a bar of three chocolate praline? Perhaps it is a question that would be resolved, as some people have pointed out, by the very commercial practice of putting a label stating "Classic" on all of the more traditional turrones.

This gastronomic dispute is far from being resolved (something easy to understand when you consider that during Christmas dinner there are arguments over everything down to the colour of the napkins). We propose resolving the issue this Christmas in a way that will keep all parties happy: by dividing the turrón we receive into three groups: those that are similar to other typical Christmas sweets, those that seem to be more traditional turrones and finally, those that look to us to be products of a crazy confectioner, obsessed with avant-garde creations. For the moment, it is the third group that seems to have the most...

Popular saying

"Al que veas en alpargatas por Navidad, no le preguntes como le va" ("If you see someone wearing espadrilles at Christmas, don’t ask them how things are going")

Being accustomed to Spanish sayings having a cryptic formula and a meaning that can only be deduced by reading in between the lines, it is curious to come across one that is so direct and that doesn’t beat about the bush... and even more so during this time of year when we are supposed to be as courteous and correct as possible.

This saying is easy to understand, but there is one word that can escape our consideration. That is "alpargatas": this refers to a basic kind of footwear made from canvas and with a coarse sole. So, as you can imagine, wearing "alpargatas" is typical of people with a modest income, given that they are not exactly a formal type of footwear and that, given their design, are more often worn in hotter climates.

Therefore, if we see someone wearing these shoes during this special time, a time when there are so many family engagements, when you need to be feeling economically comfortable and when it is very cold, we can probably say that things aren’t going very well for them.

That is not to say that if somebody is in financial difficulties in Spain that it is customary to leave the house wearing espadrilles. What this saying is trying to tell us is that it is not good form to ask a person about their situation when everything indicates that things are going pretty badly. After all, you wouldn’t ask a recently evicted person how things are going about the house.

The strange thing is, despite being about a very evident reality, this is a saying that is not that well known. Well... it is also quite likely that it is exactly for this reason, because we already know that we shouldn’t be so inopportune with what we say, that so few people have heard of it. Maybe our ancestors weren’t so discreet... and they have the nerve to say that about the younger generations!


Christmas Vocabulary II

Last year we gave you some typically Spanish words, but there were some we could not include due to insufficient time and space. This list is here to complete the last one with some terms that you will hear constantly around this time of year. Here are the new ones:

  • Acebo (Holly): It is the Christmas plant par excellence. Its red fruits and pointed leaves can be seen in Christmas tree decorations and wreaths. It is thought that its use at this time of year is a throwback to the Celtic celebration of Winter Solstice.
  • Auto de Navidad (Christmas Play): You might think, given that we Spanish use the word "auto" to refer to cars that this might refer to a tinsel covered automobile. But, in reality, an "auto de navidad" is a representation or play from one of the Gospels related to the birth of Jesus Christ. Historically it was a theatre genre in Spain (in some historical cities they still do it) and it could be said that the school Nativity plays, in some way, are the great-great grandchildren of this tradition.
  • Bombo (Lottery Drum): This is possibly one of the most repeated words on the 22nd of December, the day of the Christmas Lottery. A "Bombo" is one of the two giant spheres that contain the lottery numbers and their prizes. The rhythm generated upon turning them and the noise that they make are in the dreams of many on this day.
Lottery Drum
  • Camello (Camel): That an animal as unconnected with snow and the cold of winter as the camel is associated with Christmas in Spain is not without its reason. It is supposed that the Three Wise Men come from the West (more specifically the near West), crossing the desert, with the result that it is normal that they should come by camel. Incidentally, camels are popularly attributed with an ability to fly just like Santa’s reindeers. One thing is for sure, however, that none of the three camels had a name or a red nose.
  • Cohetes (Rockets): This word wasn’t a typically Christmas word until relatively recently. Nowadays, during New Year’s Eve celebrations many people take the opportunity to go out onto the street and launch rockets, fireworks and flares after the chiming of the bells at midnight. This new tradition is controversial because it is hardly regulated and for some minutes there is so much noise that it sounds like the city is being bombed.
  • Digestivo (Digestif/Palate Cleanser): In many Spanish households it is becoming fashionable to serve a cocktail made up of cava and lemon sorbet that is called "digestive" in between the starter and main course during the Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve dinners. Be careful the same doesn’t happen to you as did to one of our writers, who had two glasses of the stuff, thinking that it was dessert and became quite perplexed when out came the plates of roast lamb.
  • Flor de Pascua (Poinsettia): This is the name given in Spain to the Poinsettia, the typical indoor Christmas plant with large red leaves. For some time now it has become very popular in Spain, so much so that now when anyone asks us about a typical Christmas plant we now think of it instead of holly.
  • Lotería (Lottery): You will see that many businesses are selling lottery tickets or shares in a particular number. In Spain you cannot truly understand Christmas without knowing about the lottery of the 22nd of December or the "Sorteo del Gordo" ("The Big One"), a national phenomenon to which entire news programmes are dedicated to.
  • Pandereta (Tambourine): For many people this is one of the most normal and run of the mill musical instruments, but for the Spanish it is inevitably associated with Christmas. They say that in Spain tambourines are like mushrooms: you see none all year until a particular season arrives and they are everywhere.
  • San Ildefonso (Saint Ildefonso): This saint is linked to Christmas in an indirect way. He is constantly mentioned because the children whose role it is to sing the numbers and prizes during the Christmas Lottery on the 22nd of December are students from the Saint Ildefonso College in Madrid.
  • Sidra (Cider): Although you can drink it at any time of the year (especially if you are in Asturias) for years cider has been present on the Christmas table. In fact, one of Spain’s most famous brands of cider is advertised all during the Christmas period. It is a cheaper, but equally festive, alternative for those who don’t like the taste of cava.
  • Villancico (Christmas Carol): This is what we call the traditional Christmas songs in which snow covered landscapes, the birth of Jesus Christ and the arrival of the Three Kings are all mentioned. Many historians agree that they originate from Spain and their name refers to the fact that they were sung by the people who lived in the "villas" (towns) and were known as "villanos".
You will have noticed that some of these words are also used at other times of the year, but at Christmas they take on a special meaning, a renewed spirit almost. So much so that you could say that a conversation during Christmas in Spain is not complete without one of them. We invite you to try some out if you happen to be spending Christmas here with us.

Vigilia (Vigil)

You will almost certainly hear this word uttered by many during the month of December, especially if they are particularly religious or workers who are contracted to work during the holidays.

"Vigilia", a word that seems to be sounded only in whispers and that evokes a duty, has various meanings: the state of being awake, a difficulty sleeping, a day prior to a public holiday and abstaining from eating meat for religious reasons.

With regard to the "vigilia" used at Christmas time we are referring to the religious masses that take place before certain important celebrations. One of them is called "la Inmaculada", dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which is celebrated late in the evening of the 24th of December, in remembrance of the birth of Jesus. It is popularly known as "Misa del Gallo" (The Mass of the Cockerel).

Other, less religious, Christmas forms of "Vigilias", but that still demand commitment, are those that concern those people who work on the days before the public holidays of Christmas and the New Year; nurses and emergency services staff, street cleaners (a special mention goes out to the long suffering team that cleans the Puerta del Sol following the New Year’s Eve celebrations), waiters, etc... However, this meaning of the word is a lot less formal: maybe because the religious vigils speak of blessings and we all know that having to go to work is a "biblical curse".

In conclusion, now you know what this word means and what its uses are...and now that we have explained it to you it is something less to keep us awake at night and hold a vigil over.

New prices for 2013 and new courses in Mexico

2013 is nearly upon us, but our new prices haven’t been able to wait that long: they are already available on our website. You simply have to go to our "Prices and Dates" section and you will find all of the courses that we offer with updated descriptions and prices. Whether it is a general English course, a more specific programme or one that offers additional activities such as Flamenco, all are up to date. You can also download our completely updatedcatalogue in PDF format if you would like to print it or consult it when you are without internet connection. We invite you to have a flick through it and, as you already know, if you have any doubts or questions you can get in touch with us, we will help you to choose a course that is adapted to your tastes, needs and budget.

Prices 2013
Courses Mexico

However, this is not the only thing that is new. Mexico, one of our most emblematic destinations in the Americas, has widened its appeal with new specialized courses such as the 50+ program for all those over 50 years old who wish to learn Spanish or a Kids course that allows children to start to familiarize themselves with Spanish.. On top of this, for the more energetic amongst us, we have added new Active Spanish Courses such as Kite-surfing and Scuba Diving; what could be better than taking part in one of our favourite sports in a paradise-like location such as Playa del Carmen or Puerto Vallarta. And if all that isn’t enough, we also have a new course allowing you to combine your Spanish lessons with cooking classes where you will be able to create the best Spanish and Latin American dishes.

The selection of courses on offer never stops growing and there are more and more possibilities to learn Spanish. This year, in 2013, we can say, more so than in any other year, that we are proud to be able to teach you what is not only currently one of the most important languages in the world, but also a huge culture and fascinating legacy.

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