Culture and spanish language - December 2011

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Typical Spanish

Spanish Instruments Typically Used During Christmas in Spain

Spain is a musical country, especially during the Christmas season, when everyone sings along to Christmas carols (even if it’s only under the shower) and up until recently choir groups could often be seen singing in the streets, before houses. These days, school performances are still around, where children can be heard singing to timeless tunes, such as ‘hacia Belén va una burra’ (A Donkey Is Going to Bethlehem), ‘Little Drummer Boy’, ‘25 de diciembre’ (December 25th”), or everyone’s favourite, due to the randomness of its argument, ‘los peces en el río’ (a Christmas carol that tells how fish miraculously start drinking the water in the rivers where they swim as the Son of God walks past them),

Regardless of the lyrics, however, the tunes usually come from instruments that are only used during this time of the year. Some of them are curious, others unexpected and some of them are amazingly homemade. Let’s have a look at a selection:

  • Almirez (mortar): Have you ever seen one of those metal basins in Spanish homes. Where garlic is crushed with an iron hammer of sorts? While they are still kitchen utensils, they are also used to accompany Christmas carols.
  • Arrabel: A percussion instrument. It consists of several tubes joined together to form a washboard of sorts, which is rubbed with a castanet. Formerly, the tubes used to be nothing other than emptied bones.
  • Botella rizada (curly bottle): The name given to the bottles of a sweet aniseed liqueur. Since 1870 these bottles have been given an uncommon shape with a protuberance that makes it easier to hold on to by waiters. We have no clue how someone noticed that, if a spoon is rubbed against it, it makes a peculiar sound. To this day it is one of the most popular and cheapest musical instruments used during the Christmas season.
  • Carraca (ratchet): A curious ‘L’-shaped instrument, with a rotating part equipped with teeth that rub against the handle when it turns, producing a bizarre noise.
  • Huesos de fruta (fruit bones): Years ago it was common to carve apricot bones into shapes that worked as whistles. While it was easy to give them the desired shape, the technique necessary to make them sound is now a lost art.
  • Pandereta (tambourine): A wooden or plastic circle with a membrane to which small cymbals or cascabels are attached. Many know the instrument from folk music or as a hippie trademark but in Spain it is firmly connected to the Christmas season.
  •  Sonaja: As simple as this: take a ‘Y’-shaped stick and between its branches attach a wire that runs through the middle of flat bottle caps or metal discs. There you have it!
  • Zambomba: It’s another percussion instrument. A wooden, carton or clay cylinder covered with a membrane, as if it were a drum. This membrane, however, has a hole through which a wooden stick is threaded. As the stick is moved up and down the friction produces a distinctive sound halfway between a beat and a rub.   

Needless to say, there is a bit of everything: some instruments, curiously, have Arabic origins; others are improvised from kitchen appliances, while others can be readily made at home with our own two hands. That might mean Christmas knows nothing of cultures and of social strata, although right now we couldn’t care less about that sort of thing: some of us will stay with the nostalgic image of our grandfather carving holes through the bones of some fruits after the Christmas dinner, so that we could play ‘Silent Night’.

Featured City

Christmas Concert
Christmas Concert
Valencia. (Christmas Concert)

Valencia is one of the most musically orientated cities in Spain. No feast or celebration is short of a music band, be it of amateurs or organised by the City Council. Thus, it comes as no surprise that they have a big event during Christmas, such as the Christmas concert.

Round about midnight on the Sunday prior to Christmas Eve (this year, on December 18) the local band of the city of Valencia takes the Palau de la Música, next to the Jardines del Turia: a modern and courtly building that has hosted performances from highly renowned musicians, singers and orchestras.

This concert is certain to please whoever wishes to attend, as the entry is free and unrestricted – just make sure to get there early, as the capacity is limited. The repertoire is classic, as would be expected from the time of the year, and the director of the band this year, Fernando Bonete, is a distinguished musician who has performed in the best concert halls in the country and recorded with prestigious record labels. Therefore, many believe this even is comparable to Vienna’s Christmas concert, except more popular and less elitist.

By the way, should you decide to attend, remember you can visit the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences) on your way out. It’s nearby, and it is really worth checking it out during the Christmas season… like everything else in Valencia!

Famous Person

Three Kings
Typically Spanish Christmas Characters

‘Three Kings or Santa?’ This is one of the most common questions these days. On the one hand, there are those who maintain traditions should be upheld and ‘imported’ customs should be dismissed; on the other, there are those who think it a shame to give the gifts to children on Epiphany, when there are merely two days left of holidays.

By the way, why do the Three Kings arrive so late? According to Catholic tradition, January 6 is the day of Epiphany, the day when Jesus was revealed as the King of Kings. And what better way of showing this than with three kings kneeling at his feet? Apparently, it falls on January 6 because that was already a holiday, celebrating the Winter Solstice. You know, all that malarkey about replacing pagan celebrations for Christian rites… but we are not going to get into that today…

Let’s get back to the subject of gifts, because it is curious: everyone forgets that other characters are in charge of delivering presents according to Spanish traditions. Who are these Spanish characters, who would pose a local alternative to the three kings and the good old man dressed in red? Here are some of them:

Olentzero: A character taken specifically from the Basque Country. The Olentzero is a charming coal miner who climbs down from the mountain. Initially he only brought coal, but with the years he became burdened with toys. His task is carried out a few nights prior to Christmas Eve. He is also potbellied (this is a sign of abundance) and he loves smoking, although with the years this politically incorrect condition has been thwarted.

Alpalpador: Also a miner, this Galician character presents his gifts on New Year’s Day. He is somewhat bolder than Olentzero: before leaving his gifts and candies, he feels the tummy of the child to make certain he or she has been well fed.

Esteru: The gift-giver from the Cántabro, he is a woodcutter who shows up on Christmas Eve and carves the toys himself with the wood he cuts (we still don’t know what trees give coloured plastic). His tale is somewhat tragic: according to it, he is the spirit of a man who was killed while saving some children from burning to death in a fire.

Anjanas: Also from the Cántabro, these are highly generous fairies who nevertheless concede gifts only every five years. It’s not because they are stingy, but once upon a time they were in charge of delivering gifts to families with little means, who could not afford a yearly present. You know what we mean…

Angulero: On we go in our journey and we make it to Asturias, where the character in charge of delivering toys is Angulero. Recently created (barely three years ago), he wears a woollen cap, yellow raincoat, boots (similar to a fisherman’s), he carries a net and the story goes that he comes from the faraway Sargasso Sea, where eels lay their eggs. Are eels the ones in charge of making the gifts? Only time will tell.

Tió de Nadal: This Catalan character is not human, but an empty tree trunk which is slowly fed candies until Christmas Day, when it is forced to ‘defecate’ the candies, as it is beaten with a stick. Needless to say, poor old Tió is one of the most abused characters of the Christmas season. 

It’s strange that these ‘alternative’ characters all belong to the northern portion of the peninsula. Some say that, given the Roman presence in these territories, which soon after were Christianised, an underlying influence of a primitive divinity might have remained and survived to this day. This, however, would not explain the case of Tió de Nadal or the Angulero. But, who cares about origins? What really matters is that they bring us gifts!

Spanish Recipe

Typical Christmas Food

Try as we may, the fact remains that there isn’t a single Christmas table in Spain that is fully typical. Not only because the dishes change from province to province, but, actually, because they change almost from household to household. These days you can find just about everything in the supermarkets, even out of season, which is why, in end effect and despite traditions, what really counts is personal taste. Hence, on the one hand we might find typical dishes (especially sweets) together with other things that don’t necessarily belong to the season but that in times like these, when there is hardly any time to cook, gain importance. Here’s a few of them:

Alfajores: In Spain, these are cylinders made of almond paste, walnut and honey which are coated with ground sugar; in Latin America they are sweets made with layers of puff pastry or cookies cushioned by coats of cream or boiled condensed milk between each layer. Both kinds are to die for…

Lamb: Stewed or roasted, for a long time it was the undisputed lord of the Christmas menu, although recently it has been on its way down for two reasons: First, because of the time required for its confection, which few people can afford to take; and second, because nowadays it is no longer considered a luxurious dish, only prepared for special occasions, as it used to be. Fortunately, these days people can have lamb without too much danger of breaking the bank.

Guirlache: A sweet typical of the region of Aragon, it is prepared with almonds and solidified toasted sugar. If you ever taste a piece of guirlache, you should know the right way to eat it is letting it melt inside your mouth. Don’t bite it, ‘cause you run the risk of losing your teeth!

Mantecados: Traditionally, it is a mixture of lard, sugar and baked flour. These days, a mantecado refers to a sweet that is very similar, but not identical, to the Latin American alfajor.

Shellfish: Prawns, langoustines, crabs, barnacles and even lobsters can be seen on the tables of every household. Some say there is a reminiscence in this to the times when families used to eat the most expensive and exotic food available, because Christmas was a special occasion. These days, the tradition is in decline, whether it be through choice or price.

Marzipan: Born in Toledo, this tender sweet is made of almond paste, sugar and baked honey. It is one of the most popular Christmas sweets among children, as they come in small portions and a huge number of shapes, such as ducks, trumpets, ribbons… it can also be served as a gigantic, family-size serpent, adorned with sugar paste filigree or pearls of candy.

Nevaditos: Very similar to traditional mantecados, but somewhat lighter (they can also be made with puff cake). Its distinctive trait is the coating of ground sugar that makes them seem like they have been buried in snow.

Smoked Salmon

Pan de Cadiz: Essentially, abread made of marzipan and filled with fruit comfiture, sweet potato paste or egg yolk. Evidently, it stems from Andalusia, even though it has become increasingly more accepted in other provinces: tender and sweet beyond imagination, it could almost be a whole dinner itself.

Pastel de Gloria: This sweet mixes marzipan, meringue and puff pastry (a little piece of heaven for those with a sweet tooth). Due to its shape it is also called other less politically correct names, such as ‘nun’s bosom’, for instance (we mustn’t forget that many Spanish dessert recipes were invented in convents).

Polvorones: A classic present in all tables. Somewhat similar to the mantecado, with the detail that it crumbles to pieces as soon as it is held with any firmness. A trick: before opening it, wrap your hand around it and make a strong fist. That way the dough is compressed and it won’t crumble. Have it with a glass of water, as it can be excessively dry and pasty.

Chicken: Another token of the post-war. Many households would serve chicken only on special occasions, such as Christmas: the tradition, it’s easy confection and popular demand have turned it into one of the star dishes.

Lombarda (Red Cabbage) with Pine Nuts and Raisins: In case you didn’t know, the lombarda is a purple kind of cabbage. In some places it is customary to serve it boiled, mixed with raisins and pine nuts and seasoned with vinegar as an appetiser during Christmas dinner. Needless to say, it is by far the most neglected Christmas dish among children.

Wine Doughnuts: Nothing other than simple doughnuts made with wine in their mix. After they have been baked, ground sugar is added as a decoration. It’s strange, but, together with polvorones, these are the last things to fly from the sweets platter in Christmas parties.

Smoked Salmon: What started as asimple alternative to shellfish for those who cannot stand prawns or langoustines (inexplicably, there always has to be some seafood in Spanish Christmas tables), has turned into something typical. Ironically, the most coveted is usually Norwegian salmon. Shall we say this is a way of making our festivity slightly more ‘European’.

Potato Tortilla: Yep. Even though it is the preeminent Spanish dish, regardless of the time of the year, tortilla is becoming increasingly frequent during Christmas. Why? Due to its simplicity, its low cost and because it is the most common of dishes, which everyone enjoys. A Christmas Eve will truly be a peaceful night if there is tortilla on the plates.

Turrón: The Christmas sweet par excellence since the XVII Century, it is sold in custom-sized bars. Initially, there were only three kinds: the Alicante variety (white and hard), the Jijona variety (brown and soft) and the toasted yolk variety (spongy and gold). These days we can find many other flavours – chocolate, fruits, egg yolk… even whisky and rose petals! It goes without saying that those with a more classical palate consider the latter varieties not to be true turrón

There are many more dishes, of course, but we don’t want to make this too long, either. Because we don’t want to bore you… and because we want to hurry up to claim the marzipan figurines they have brought into the newsroom.

Popular Saying

“Neither praise nor scathe before seven Christmases” (No alabes ni desalabes hasta siete Navidades)

While these are the days of trust, love and friendship, it is always good to remember that you must be careful when it comes to choosing and cautious when passing judgement.

Hence, this saying, which is only related to Christmas by mentioning it (and, perhaps, through its rhyme) tells us that the more we think about our judgements the better they will be. It also tells us, and this is the less ‘official’ sense, that we can only know things fully well through experience (how often has someone who initially seemed trustworthy ended up betraying us in due course). It is the typical proverb that you can picture yourself telling your grandchildren once your hair has grown white, while you watch the snow fall outside the window.

Nevertheless, there is something not quite right with this. Think about the amount of time it’ll take for the number of Christmases mentioned in the saying to come by. No more, or less, than seven years! Does this mean that we cannot give our opinion on anything before all this time has gone? Not necessarily. Maybe it is linked to the sounds of the poem: in Spanish, the adage, crowded with vowels and s’s, sounds as if something glided, possibly time itself. It might also be linked to popular superstition; you know, a cat in Spain has seven lives, breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck…

We don’t mean to confuse you, or to give you a master class on poetics and Spanish folklore (after all, we’re on holidays!) but… who can help but getting pensive during these end-of-the-year festivities? Well… maybe the meaning of this saying can also be linked to the final reckonings we tend to make with the prospect of every new year. Who knows?


Christmas Vocabulary
El Gordo

Spanish, like so many other languages, has a number of words that are only used dduring a specific time of the year. Well… it’s not as if it it’s forbidden to use them in other times of the year, but it does sound awkward. Here is a list of words of this kind, which you will only hear in relation to Christmas:

Adviento (Advent): Hardly ever used, anymore, it was one of the first Christmas words used during the year, given hat it referred to the four weeks immediately preceding Christmas Eve.

Aguinaldo: It refersto a small amount of money given to children who walk along the streets singing Christmas carols. It is not a very popular word… especially when there is a crisis going on.
Belén (Bethlehem): Apart from the Palestinian city, this word also alludes to the representation of the scene of the birth of Christ, so long as the group includes figurines representing other characters, such as buildings, peasants, and so on. If the representation deals only with the manger, the Virgin Mary, Joseph and the child, then it is called a nacimiento,or nativity

Cabalgata: While the word is used to designate a group of people riding horses, for most Spaniards it refers exclusively to a parade of chariots that takes place to welcome the Three Kings into town on January 5.

Chiquirritín: Ay del chiquirritín, chiquirriquitín metidito entre pajas’ (‘Oh, the little one, oh the little one, tucked beneath the hay’) is a phrase included in a famous Christmas carol that tells about the birth of Christ. Few people know that this word means ‘small child’ and it is often thought that it has no meaning at all, used only to set the rhythm of the tune, just like ‘A-wop bop-a loo-mop, a-lop bam-boom!’ would.

Christmas: Christmas post cards. It might seem strange but in Spain these have always been known through their name in English. These days it’s less common, although it still can be heard in households, where the mother will ask, ‘have you already written the Christmas for your granny?

Cotillón: Have you ever been to a New Year’s Eve Ball? That is a cotillón, although for us it also makes reference to the small packages presented to guests at the start of the party, which include a hat, a half-mask, a party blower…

Cuartos (Quarters): A term that stems from the world of watch-making, it refers to the four bells that ring every quarter of an hour. Within the context of New Year’s, however, it gains particular importance. As you all know, in Spain the New Year is greeted eating 12 grapes to the tune of the twelve strokes of the bell on the clock at Puerta del Sol. Well, many people get confused with the previous cuartos and start eating the grapes out of cue. We have been eating these grapes since 1897 and we still can’t get it right…

El gordo (The Fat One): During Christmas, talking about el gordo has nothing to do with an overweight family member. This word gives its name to the multi million first prize given to the winner of the Chirstmas lottery.

Espumillón: Have you seen those long, meandering, colourful adornments that are hung to the branches of a tree and that the cat usually drags all the way down while we are not watching? That is a espumillón.
Guirnalda (Wreath): It’s the ring of flowers and dry leaves hung on the front door of houses during this season. It is very important to distinguish it in Spanish from a corona de flores (a garland), since that is the round floral decoration placed next to the coffin in funerals. 

Misa de gallo (Christmas Eve Service): This refers to the mass that takes place shortly before midnight on Christmas Eve. It is also called misa de los pastores (‘shepherd’s service’).

Nochebuena (Christmas Eve): The night prior to Christmas Day. Often considered the night to spend with your family.

Nochevieja (New Year’s Eve): The night prior to New Year’s Day. Often the night to spend with your friends or at some party. This is the night when the twelve grapes are eaten.

Pascua: This word can often be confusing, given that, as well as the moment of the resurrection of Christ (during Easter), it also is used to designate the period between Christmas Day and Epiphany, on January 6.

Pesebre (Manger): As well as the place where beasts of burden are fed, it also gives its name to Jesus’ birthplace. Many Christmas carols mention the manger and what took place there.

Evidently, there are many more words, but these are the basic ones. They will enable you to have a nice Chirstmas, ‘Spanish style’.

Navidad (Christmas)The word of the month could be no other, and it comes from the Latin nativitas, which means ‘birth’, plain and simple. But given that Latin became the language of the church and its rites (remember that until a few decades ago, mass was still celebrated in Latin in Spain), navidad was magnified and solemnised, taking the meaning that we know today: the period of winter during which the birth of the son of God is celebrated (we suppose that in future entries in the dictionary additional references to shopping, banquets and TV specials will be included).

The funny thing is that, aside from its religious and festive meaning, navidad in Spanish also designates the age of a person. We can say, for instance, that our grandfather has ‘seventy-nine Christmases’. Nevertheless, it would not be acceptable to say that our teddy-bear ‘has twenty-five Christmases’, even if it did show up underneath the tree when we were five years old. Something pretty strange, to be sure.

Having said this, we take the opportunity to wish you felices navidades, using, of course, its second connotation – ie, may you be happy your whole life!

Christmas Course

If you want to discover the most classical traditions of Christmas in Spain - the incredibly elaborate “Nacimientos” (nativity scenes), Christmas trees, remarkable Christmas markets scattered around villages and cities showcasing piles of fruits, flowers, sweets, candles, decorations and hand-made gifts - you are invited to take our CHRISTMAS COURSE at any of our Enforex school locations in Barcelona,
Granada, Madrid, Marbella, Salamanca, Sevilla and Valencia.

We designed this course especially for those who want to take advantage of staying in Spain and learning Spanish while enjoying the country’s oldest traditions. [ Christmas programme details ]

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