Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas with a difference

My family wasn’t very traditional and I cannot even remember having spent many Christmases together. Christmas has only grown into a commercial celebration in Holland over the last few decades or so. When I was a child it was merely a period of spending time with family and friends and having some Christmas decoration in the house. Giving gifts was not part of it. As a young adult I used to spent either the 1e Kerstdag (1st Christmas day) or the 2e Kerstdag (2nd Christmas day), as we call it in Holland, at my parents’ house for a meal and just to be together. But if I didn’t feel like it, it wasn’t a big deal, it certainly wasn’t an obligation. There also was no typical Christmas food tradition in Holland, apart from some seasonal sweets. It was more about extravagance in foods that we did not eat during the year and of course, the obligatory too much of whatever was served. On New Year’s Eve my brother and I were dragged off to some party, usually great parties, with lots of traditional ‘oliebollen’ which literally translates into ‘oil balls’. Don’t be fooled though as they are delicious balls of dough deep-fried and covered with powder sugar. Midnight was always amazing with the typical Dutch custom of firework displays by most families in every street and neighbourhood, turning the entire country for at least 15 minutes or so into a colourful display of lights and bangs with people going out into the streets with a glass of bubbles to start the New Year wishing everybody the best! Then I met an English man and together we moved to Spain. Christmas became a tradition and soon I found myself sitting in front of the television watching English shows with a silly paper hat on and a Christmas cracker in my hand. A fake nylon Christmas tree with cheap shiny balls, tinsels and lights were taken out of the box each year to be set up in some corner and then, during the weeks leading up to Christmas, lots of small gifts wrapped in shiny paper were accumulating below the tree. I loved it. My now ex-partner being an excellent cook also insisted in preparing a typical English Xmas meal every year, including all the vegs and Yorkshire pudding. The left-overs turned into a fantastic bubble and squeak that we ate on Boxing Day. Christmas decorations in Spain weren’t as over the top as we had known them to be in Holland and the UK, but the Christmas tree in the square and light decorations over the streets certainly brought us into a festive spirit. Then I married a Spanish man and got an entire family with it. The outside Christmas decorations were still the same and in some cities like Malaga they have turned it into a true art with lots of lights, certainly worth a visit. Another sure sign that the festive season had arrived is a television in a corner of the local bar or restaurant with children singing the winning numbers of the Christmas lottery in a boring tune and groups of people from a local choir going around the village singing songs to collect some money for charity, the Spanish equivalent of carol singers. However to me personally this festive season got a whole new meaning when I got to know the family traditions. Now at best of times I fail to understand why many of the Spanish people living in southern Spain don’t do heating and my ‘new’ family is no exception. Their excuse that it doesn’t really get cold and winter lasts only a couple of months is not very true as many expat living here can confirm. Oh yes, winters can be like northern European summers with temperatures over 20 degrees during the day, but when the sun goes down the temperature drops below 10 degrees, not only outside but also indoors. Many houses are built to keep the sun out and no natural heat is coming in. So out come the jumpers, many layers of them, and the dressing gowns that are put on as a final layer. There usually is a round table with a small under-table heating to provide some warmth to a cold body. Cold and cracked dry skin on the hands and a runny nose don’t seem to bother them. My Spanish family is no different. My mother in law, a tiny, possibly due to old-age shrinkage, feisty and very funny 84 year old can barely walk as she shuffles into the patio in her four or five layers of jumpers and trousers, to sit in the sun to heat up her, as she calls it… frozen legs. The under-table heating is only used as an exception as she is so used to a life time of saving up for the kids and spending the least possible on herself. She would not have it any other way. The December holiday makes no exception. Spain doesn’t know a second Christmas day or a Boxing Day so the festivities are squeezed into Christmas Eve, where the family enjoys a meal together and Christmas day where the family enjoys lunch together. In my Spanish family the only tradition is to eat lots of prawns, big prawns usually, which come with some side dishes and too many deserts and seasonal fried cookies and other sweet treats. The left-overs are then eaten on Christmas Day. The lucky ones get to sit at the table with the under-table heating, with the table-cloth held underneath their chins to get maximum effect of the welcoming heat, but the not so lucky have no option but to come in layers or to keep their coats on. No Christmas tree or decoration to create a pleasant atmosphere and gifts are only given to the two young children in the family on Christmas Eve. There is no obligation to spend the entire X-mas Eve or day together so when the last bite of super sweet desert has vanished into our bodies everybody rushes out to do whatever they fancy doing that day. After having taken part in two of such Christmases I suggested to somewhat break that family tradition. Now living in our new, renovated house with wonderful pellet-stove, which was a serious condition of me to even consider getting married, heating up the entire house and creating a wonderful atmosphere with its real flames, we have suggested to celebrate Christmas Eve at our place. A Christmas tree in the corner of the room with sparkly Christmas lights, a pleasant heat, no more coats on or runny noses, just a lot of cooking for me, but fortunately that is one of my hobbies. Last year it was Chinese, which was greatly appreciated and this year I will present an abundant selection of tapas. And the visitors bring the desert. Sounds good to me. And New Year’s Eve? According to tradition that is spent in the house of one of my sisters in law. A very cold house. We sit there with thick jumpers or our coats on, a television is showing silly sketches by men dressed up as women, slightly too loud. The family cheerfully recalls some curious past events in the local village. The meal consists of mainly meat dishes, something I dread this year. After having seen too many cute piglets, cuddly cows and happily jumping about lams with colourful knitted jumpers, all saved from the slaughter house, on Facebook I can no longer eat meat, even if it is disguised as a tasty pate or sliced salami. Guess I’ll be bringing my own dinner. At midnight we all pop 12 grapes into our mouths on the counts of the last 12 seconds of the passing year. A few hugs and kisses and best wishes and off we go…. Usually home to sleep off the exhaustion of the stressful Christmas season and with the full intention to comply with our New Year’s resolution to never do this again! But, as is the case with so many well-intended resolutions…! Wishing you all a wonderful Christmas and a Fantastic 2016! My Christmas Gift to you is a download of my Christmas art card. Feel free to use it as a digital X-mas card to send to your friends and family! If you like to be kept informed about my art work you can enrol for my newsletter. Please send me an email at and I will add you to the mailing list. MERRY CHRISTMAS