The first time Sevillano neighbors invited us over for New Year’s Eve, our host casually added, “And don’t forget to bring your red underwear and grapes!” I said, “Yes, of course,” as if I knew what he was talking about, and hastily consulted Yolanda, my Spanish teacher, on the finer points of local New Year’s Eve etiquette.
Here in Spain, she explained, to ensure good luck in the year ahead you’re supposed to ring in the New Year sporting bright red underwear that you’ve received as a gift. The local shops are full of every conceivable style, from nice to very naughty indeed. I was greatly relieved to hear that I was not expected to show everybody my new red lingerie but simply wear it under my party dress. I later learned that residents of the Spanish town La Font de la Figuera don’t get away so easily; every year they strip down to their scarlet undies and run through the center of town as part of their New Year’s celebrations. Note to self: don’t even consider moving to that town!
“Where do the grapes come in?” I asked. Yolanda told me that at midnight on December 31st it’s customary — no, mandatory — to consume twelve grapes, one at each tolling of the clock; for every one you swallow at the right moment, you’ll have a month of good luck in the coming year.
As we sat around in our red underwear (and outerwear) sipping cava and waiting for midnight to arrive, our neighbors explained that it’s impossible to get your grapes down fast enough unless you peel them first. And as I soon learned, skinning small, round, slippery fruit after several glasses of cava takes some practice. Nowadays, I do what so many Spaniards do: I buy special cans that contain twelve peeled, waterlogged grapes that are perfect for chugging.
I naturally assumed that the grape tradition sprang from some saint’s miracle or a 13th century edict by King Alfonso the Wise, but later I learned it was born from modern commercial greed. In 1909 the grape growers of Alicante had such a surplus that in desperation they came up with this new “tradition” as a way to get the public to take the extras off their hands. Those grape growers must have been wearing extra-powerful red underwear that year, because it caught on in a huge way, and ever since then, downing 12 grapes at midnight has defined New Year’s Eve in Spain.
Wherever you’re ringing in the New Year, I hope you’ll have your red underwear on (with or without outer clothing) and a dozen slippery grapes ready to pop into your mouth as midnight chimes. We may think this is all silly superstition, but why take a chance? I think we could all use a little extra luck in 2013, don’t you?
“I’ve got something to show you,” said Rich. “Got your camera?” We were out for a stroll, threading our way through the crowded labyrinth of pedestrian streets and alleys that make up Seville’s downtown shopping area. “You bet,” I said. He steered me into the Centro Mercantile, an old club that often houses exhibitions of dubious modern paintings and gorgeous old religious art. I took three steps into the gallery and stopped, gobsmacked by the sight of the entire town of Bethlehem fashioned from 1500 kilos of chocolate, with a river of honey running through it.
Nobody does nativity scenes like Seville. I’ve seen them with live animals and birds, GI Joe action figures in combat fatigues kneeling reverently before the manger, everyone dressed in flamenco outfits, and the Holy Family tucked under the shelter of a giant ham. But this was easily the most glorious, as big as my living room and smelling like heaven.
This is what’s so great about the holidays: people go completely over the top. Some of my friends have criticized Seville’s downtown lighting display as being too gaudy. But isn’t that what the year-end festivities are all about – extravagance and magic?
I can remember being a small child, dazzled by the sudden appearance of holiday lights, entranced by the smells of pine and chocolate and wood fires, electrified with anticipation of the treats in store for us.
Today, I live thousands of miles from my relatives and many others who are dear to me; they’re scattered around the globe from the Americas to Asia to Europe to Down Under. I’ll never again see everyone I love gathered under one roof. At holiday celebrations I sometimes feel a pang about the faces I don’t see around my table.
But I am deeply grateful that I live in an age where I can stay in close contact with those who are far away. We email, we talk on Skype, and when the stars align, we meet up somewhere and enjoy each other’s company. My social circle is no longer geographically defined. It’s a bit like iCloud; my friends are not always physically on hand, but they seem to appear when I need them most.
Having friends all over the planet keeps life interesting and makes me feel that I’m a citizen of the world. And that means wherever I am at this time of year, I’m home for the holidays.
I've been doing a lot of reading about Prague in preparation for next summer's train trip trough Central and Eastern Europe. And frankly, I'm afraid. I'm very afraid.
Prague isn’t all beer halls and sausage stands. Gorgeous old churches and magnificent palaces abound. But at this point in the trip, we’ll no doubt want a break from historic beauty and will be seeking a bit of contrast, which the Museum of Communism is more than ready to provide. Its theme, “Communism – the Dream, the Reality, and the Nightmare,” involves an “immersive experience” in a factory, a schoolroom and an interrogation room. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
And if yet more thrills are needed, we can pop into its competitor, the KGB Muzeum, to view Lenin’s death mask, Trotsky’s murder weapon, the contents of the KGB laboratory where spy technology and weaponry were developed, and a beautiful banner handmade by children in a labor commune for “Grandpa Lenin.”
Just reading about that era makes me understand why the Czechs have some of the highest alcohol consumption in the world. But to be fair, they had a lot of dark years even before Grandpa Lenin. It’s hard to find a bridge or alleyway in Prague that isn’t (allegedly) haunted by beheaded medieval lords, cheated giants, star-crossed lovers or other unquiet souls. The very hottest place for the undead is 45 km outside of town in Castle Houska, which the locals are sure is the real and literal Gate of Hell.
The backstory: After countless reports of a bottomless pit from which half-animal, half-human creatures emerged to wreak havoc on the countryside, a medieval Duke decided to investigate the site. He offered to pardon any prisoner who would consent to being lowered on a rope into the pit and report what he’d seen. One prisoner agreed, but emerged screaming, white haired and utterly mad. Eventually they put a stone slab over the pit and built Houska Castle on top of it, but demonic entities continued to stir up trouble. Human troublemakers, from a 17th century alchemist to the Nazis, have performed various unsavory occult experiments on the site. Today Houska Castle is a tourist attraction, so of course, we’ll drop in. But only during daylight hours, when lots of people are around.
Sometimes, even the food is scary in the Czech Republic.
For instance, there’s a popular bar snack called Upotonek, literally “the drowned man,” which is a bloated, pickled sausage floating, corpse-like, in a pool of vinegar. Yummm....
As the year draws to a close, Czech tradition calls for placing a bowl of garlic under the table to protect your family in the year ahead. Of course, Rich and I have assured each other that this is nothing but superstition. But just in case...
There's a moment in every one of our better journeys when Rich and I have the sensation of stepping off the well-lit path into the unknown. During next summer's train trip through Central and Eastern Europe, I suspect that moment will come when we arrive in the Czech Republic. We'll be traveling without reservations, just a Eurail pass and an iPad full of information about possible destinations, one of which is Prague.
Browsing through articles about Prague, I kept reading about a traditional local libation known as becherovka, which is said to taste like Christmas, being heavily laced with anis and cinnamon. And apparently it packs a wallop like New Year’s Eve. “I got so drunk I forgot where my bedroom was and fell asleep next to the dog,” blogger Katka Lapelosa recalls. Yikes. I hate nights like that.
So when we get to Prague, I’ll most likely be sticking to beer and wine, especially after reading recent horror stories about black market becherovka, absinthe and other spirits being spiked with methanol. This resulted in deaths, hideous injuries and a temporary ban on the sale of all hard liquor, sending a shockwave through the nation that has the world’s second-highest rate of hard-liquor consumption (Moldova holds the top spot). The ban has now been eased to allow the sale of spirits manufactured before January 1, 2012, so it is once again possible to drink enough bechrovka to wind up sleeping with the dog. But I think I’ll give it a miss anyway.
The Czech Republic has the highest consumption of beer in the world (take that, Moldova!) with citizens downing an impressive 161 liters per person per year. With Prague’s beer halls offering pints for the equivalent of under $1, it’s considerably cheaper than bottled water. You can’t afford not to overindulge.
Beer drinking enjoys a long and prosperous history in the region. Monks were brewing it back in 993 AD, and in 1785 Adolphus Busch gave the world Budweiser Bürgerbräu, or Budweiser Bier, in the city of Budweis – or as the Czechs prefer to spell it, Budějovice.
Czech wine isn’t such a worldwide phenomena, but it enjoys a robust local reputation, thanks to the tireless efforts of the man we now know as “Good King Wenceslas.” This noble monarch is credited with launching the region’s wine industry back in the 9th century. No wonder they made him a saint and wrote a Christmas carol about his kindness! And as if that wasn’t enough honor for one man, they also made him the patron saint of sausages. Prague’s Wenceslas Square is filled day and night, with – as the blogger from Czech Please puts it – “crowds of people gathering around sausage stands and paying homage at these altars of indigestion.”
So much to look forward to! Can’t wait to make your acquaintance, Prague!
Header photo by Jitka Erbenová
About Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. We've just complete a 161-day Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture — and our own.
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