I love the holidays in Seville, which is good, because here they last from December to early June. The attitude seems to be: Why skimp on the fun? While many of these holidays are based on Catholic religious festivals, their roots are far older, lying deep in way our most ancient ancestors celebrated of the turning of the year and the coming of spring, making their appeal universal. So wherever you live and whatever traditions you honor, there’s no reason you can’t party like the Sevillanos. And the fiestas are just getting started...
Christmas, December 24 through January 6
Nothing says “sweet Jesus” quite like an all chocolate Nativity scene with a waterfall and lake of honey and some white chocolate swans. Historically inaccurate? Looking more like Babylon than Bethlehem? Who cares? The Sevillanos love their Nativity scenes. And family gatherings. On December 24 they hold a big family dinner, but this is just the warm-up for the main event on January 6.
New Year’s Eve, December 31
Want better luck in 2014? Then underneath your New Year’s Eve party duds, you’d better don red undergarments that you’ve received as a gift; they are sold everywhere in styles that range from nice to very naughty indeed. And at midnight, you’ll swallow one grape at each toll of the bell. This is harder than it sounds; be sure to peel the grapes ahead of time.
Los Reyes Magos (the Three Kings), January 5 & 6
In Spain, the Three Kings bring gifts to good boys and girls on January 6th, and on the eve of that happy event, the Cabalgata (Cavalcade) sweeps through Seville, distributing 80,000 kilos (176,000 pounds) of candy from 33 glittering floats. No Cabalgata in your neighborhood? Try throwing candy out the window to your kids and/or friends; they’ll soon get into the spirit of the season!
Semana Santa, the week before Easter
Every year 55 magnificent processions wind through the city day and night, with statues of a bleeding Jesus and a weeping Mary, and an entourage of nazarenos dressed in robes and conical hats (the ones that inspired the KKK outfits), making it pretty spooky around here, especially at night. For a homemade version of the festival, minus the hoods and the robes, see Cruz de Mayo below.
Feria de Abril, two weeks after Semana Santa
During this week-long marathon of all-night drinking and dancing, women dress up in eye-popping trajes de flamenca (flamenco outfits), long, skin-tight sheaths that erupt at the knee into cascades of enormous ruffles in vivid colors and patterns, mostly polka dots. No Feria in your town? Wear polka dots and stay up all night dancing and sipping ribujitos (very dry sherry mixed with a soft drink like 7up).
Romería del Rocío, held around Pentecost (49 days after Easter)
A pilgrimage to honor a sacred effigy of the Virgin in a vast wooded park, this fiesta involves walking or riding in an ox cart for days, wearing a looser style of the traje de flamenca, and partying under the stars late into the night. Don your polka dots, take a long walk in the country, than gather outdoors for cold beer and hot dancing.
Cruz de Mayo, May & early June
Now it’s the kids’ turn to stage processions, usually little home-made floats with a wooden cross carried by the neighborhood boys while the girls collect money to pay for the materials. If your kids don’t seem keen to try this, you can always revert to a Romería del Rocío party, which occurs around the same time.
With these holidays, Seville marks the entire transition from the shortest, darkest days of winter to the full blossoming of summer, from the dying of the old year to the coming of age of another generation of children. They believe that every day is something to celebrate, and I’m with them all the way on that. Cheers!
“You’re getting a Christmas tree?” Spanish friends used to say, with such incredulity that I might as well have announced we were building an igloo in our living room. “A live tree? Really?”
“Where are you getting a tree?” expat friends would ask, eyeing us a trifle suspiciously, as if we had a direct line to Santa’s workshop and had been keeping it to ourselves.
That was a few years ago, when árboles de Navidad were a complete novelty here in Seville, known only from American movies and indulged in exclusively by a few foreigners who had enchufe (pull) with the local florist or a friend with a farm and an axe. The only ornaments available were from discount bazaars, made of sturdy plastic and hand painted in such a slapdash manner that the angels often had expressions ranging from quizzical to downright satanic (rendering them doubly useful as Halloween decorations). Today, holiday trees are common in larger shops and a few avant-garde households. Even homeowners tend to decorate them like the ones in movie department stores, with matching, evenly spaced ornaments of a single color. So far I’ve never seen a Spanish tree with a lopsided ornament made by a kindergartener out of dry pasta and old bottle caps, and I think the trees are the poorer for that.
While holiday trees are slowly gaining traction here, buying a good one is still far from easy. Cheap artificial trees are readily available in discount stores, but Rich and I are partial to fresh firs like the ones we used to know as kids. A few local florists stock spindly three-foot trees — more like shrubs, really — that come with their roots in balls of dirt and their limbs so dry we can only assume they were dug up well ahead of time, say in June.
Even so, a couple of years ago we were thrilled to find one at the florist’s kiosk in our neighborhood and carried it home in triumph. Two nights later a windstorm swept through the city and, due to an open window, right through our apartment. In the morning we found our tree sprawled on the floor in a manner so corpselike, I looked for a chalk outline. When we stood it upright, the branches came but the needles — all of them — stayed on the floor, leaving us holding a bundle of dead sticks. We ran out and bought more garlands to wrap around the pitiful remnant, and with considerable effort and expense, we managed to create something that looked like a cockeyed, patchy artificial tree.
People kept remarking, “I thought you said you bought a live tree.”
While decent árboles de Navidad may be in short supply, Seville is blessed with an abundance of Nativity scenes. Here in Catholic Spain, they’re de rigueur in government buildings, banks, stores, and private homes as well as churches. The bigger scenes nearly always include, somewhere in the background, a tiny crouched caganer who is clearly, explicitly defecating; they say it’s to add a touch of earthy realism. If you’re thinking of adding one to your seasonal decorations, you can find online vendors offering a wide selection of caganer figurines with well-known faces including Bruce Springsteen, Kate Middleton, Albert Einstein, Rodin’s the Thinker, the Queen of Spain, Bart Simpson, Darth Vader, the Three Kings, Santa, and many, many more.
Holiday traditions provide reassurance that whatever madness is currently abroad in the world, some things will roll around every year with comforting predictability. In December, Rich and I will have a holiday tree, with or without needles. American kindergarteners will bring home lopsided ornaments made from a motley collection of incongruous objects. And in countless reverently staged Nativity scenes throughout Spain, little caganer figures will be crouched in the shadows behind the stable, adding an earthy touch to the awesome moment, reminding us that we don’t have to be perfect to be part of something wonderful.
Parts of this post were drawn from my book Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad, which tells tales of our move to Seville. (This book makes a great gift for anyone who likes to travel, laugh, celebrate holidays, or dance in fountains. Just thought I'd mention it, because I heard you might be looking for ideas.)
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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