There’s nothing quite like basking in the afternoon sun, sipping sangria, and knowing that back home your family and friends are trudging through knee-deep snow, stinging sleet, and/or the bitter winds of serious winter. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t enjoy the idea of my loved ones suffering. It’s just that after 20 years in Cleveland’s snow belt, I appreciate every deliciously warm, sun-drenched day I spend in Seville — especially in December, January, and February.
The climate here isn’t tropical; only the most die-hard sun worshippers will want to strip down to a bikini or seek out one of Andalucía’s topless beaches at this time of year. But if you don’t mind throwing on a sweater or jacket, you can have all the fun of exploring this magnificent old European city without the sweltering heat, high-season prices, and ever-increasing crowds of tourists found here in the summer months.
Here in Catholic Spain, December is naturally all about the run-up to Christmas. Although Santas and decorated trees are creeping in, mostly the season is about the magnificent Nativity scenes (known as belenes, from the word “Bethlehem”) which you can visit for free at various churches, businesses, and government buildings. Sevillanos feel the magnitude of the occasion requires far more than just a stable; many belenes include hundreds of figurines, the entire town of Bethlehem, Roman ruins, and (as a backdrop for the flight into Egypt) pyramids and the Sphinx.
If you look closely in the dark corners, you may discover a crouching caganer, a figure who is clearly defecating. Yes, you read that right. This earthy realism is meant to remind us that we don’t have to be perfect to be part of something miraculous. The tradition has launched a side industry of celebrity caganers, from Darth Vader to Madonna (the singer) to political and sports stars. Belenes can include other quirky elements; I’ve seen a shepherd “urinating” real water, a donkey giving birth, and streams with live goldfish swimming in them. Then there are the heavenly belenes made entirely of chocolate…
Sevillanos take great delight in their belenes and deplore the increasing commercialism of Christmas. However, if you don’t count the Nativity scenes, it seems to me that the entire city of Seville has fewer holiday decorations than you’d find in the average American shopping mall. December in this city is festive, but the emphasis is on parties rather than shopping for gifts, which are exchanged on January 6. But first, there’s New Year’s Eve, and for that you’ll need red underwear and a dozen grapes.
Here in Seville it’s de rigueur to ring in the New Year wearing bragas rojas (red underpants) beneath your street clothes. Don’t have any? Not to worry; you can find them in every clothing, department, and discount store throughout Seville, in every conceivable style from nice to very naughty indeed.
Dinner with the family is also a mandatory part of New Year’s Eve, and virtually all restaurants are closed; you’ll want to secure a reservation at a hotel dining room or buy picnic supplies early in the day. And while you’re shopping, be sure to pick up a dozen grapes. Take them down to Plaza Nueva shortly before midnight, where locals gather to ring in the New Year by swallowing one grape for each bong of the clock. It’s harder than it sounds, as you won’t have time to do much chewing. Fresh grapes need to be peeled (best undertaken before you open the champagne), or you can buy a can of 12 pre-peeled, juice-saturated grapes sold in markets for this purpose. What happens if you don’t get them all down on time? Bad luck in the year ahead. Pure foolish superstition, of course. But why risk it?
On January 6 the Three Kings (Reyes Magos) bring gifts, and on the eve of that happy event, a parade called the Cabalgata winds through the city for hours, with crews flinging 176,000 pounds of candy from 33 glittering floats. There are many splendid vantage points; I usually watch from opposite the Church of the Magdalena, which provides a gorgeous backdrop for photos.
The holiday celebrations are splendid fun, but if your travel schedule doesn’t overlap with any of them, remember that the real star is Seville itself. This city has been a favorite with international travelers since the days of Julius Cesar, and every generation has left behind its share of treasures: the world’s largest Gothic cathedral; the tomb of Christopher Columbus; the Moorish-style Alcázar palace and gardens, which Game of Thrones fans will recognize as the Water Gardens of Dorne; the controversial modern Metropol Parasol; the hottest flamenco scene anywhere; and so much more. If you’re looking for someplace to escape winter’s icy grip, here you’ll find mild weather, plenty to see and do, and 3000 uncrowded tapas bars waiting with open doors. Yes, winter is coming. And I can’t wait.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California.
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