Christmas in Palma

We had a special file of teaching materials for Christmas. It was a fat file, bulging with papers because we added activities and stories whenever we came across them. We made use of activities, games and carols from mid-December onwards and knew that Christmas had come again.

Year after year I gave my classes some selections from Dylan Thomas’s ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’. These were memories of all the Christmases that Thomas had enjoyed with his family when a boy. Thomas’s poetic prose did full justice to Christmas. There were some pen and ink illustrations, and the cassette recording had been made by Richard Burton.  The students enjoyed it, and so did I. What Dylan Thomas described in Swansea was very like my own Christmas in Somerset. Well, Swansea and Somerset are not far from each other. They are just across the water. As a child I looked over the Bristol Channel to Wales every night from my bedroom window.  I could see the light of the lighthouse on the island of Flat Holm as the beam went round and round. Every few seconds the light returned and came through the gap between the curtains.

There are three peaks to the Christmas celebrations in Palma. The first is Christmas Eve when families unite for the evening meal. After a few days comes New Year’s Eve, and then after a few more days is the night of the Three Kings on January 5. Friends and families meet up on all the other days as well, but these three nights stand out in the festivities.

So, Christmas is coming. There are the turrón commercials on television. Turrón is traditional at this time of year. It is the size and shape of a large chocolate bar and is made from almonds and sugar. Traditionally, it was either very soft or extremely hard. Over the years new flavours appeared and some were even chocolate covered. The best turrón commercial was for a company called El Almendro. The music and the lyrics were the same year after year. “Vuelve, a casa vuelve por Navidad”. “Come back, come back home for Christmas”. This accompanied scenes of the son or daughter, returning from studying in Madrid or Barcelona, opening the door and surprising their mother at home as she was laying the table for the big meal on Christmas Eve. Every year the surprise was the same!

Another Christmas commercial is for the Christmas lottery, la Lotería de Navidad. The most famous was one shown every Christmas between 1998 and 2005. It featured an actor who became known affectionately as el calvo de la lotería, ‘the bald man of the lottery’.  He was a mysterious magician who somehow guided the winning tickets to those most in need of Christmas cheer. The actor was in fact British, and the commercials he made are still fondly remembered.

The lottery is a Christmas institution. It takes place on 22 December and is the start of the Christmas celebrations. Every home in the country turns on the TV at 8 in the morning and the programme lasts until lunch time. One of my students was a journalist, and she could never come to class that morning. She had to be ready to rush out and interview the winner if one of the big prizes landed in Palma. Children from the school of San Ildefonso in Madrid sing the winning numbers in a hypnotising chant that never varies. They have been doing this since the very first Christmas lottery in 1812. As you walk along the street you hear their voices from the TVs in every bar you pass. People who never normally buy lottery always get one or two tickets at Christmas, just as in England people who don’t normally bet on horses have a flutter on the Grand National. The custom is to buy a lottery ticket and then share it with a friend. If you win, your friend wins too, and everyone is happy.

Another Christmas tradition in Palma is visiting the Nativity scenes, called belenes or ‘Bethlehems’.  These appear in churches and in banks, in bars and in shops. There used to be a particularly good one in a pharmacy in the big Avenue that encircles the old city of Palma. These scenes occupy a whole room and do not restrict themselves to the holy family with the shepherds and the Three Kings arriving in the distance. There are also scenes of Mallorcan life in the villages and in the fields. All the trades and occupations of Mallorca are included. There are often moving figures. The cobbler is hammering the sole of a shoe and the baker is kneading dough. There are sheep, goats and cows in the fields and a fishing boat unloading the catch in the port. The windmills are raising the rainwater from the wells to irrigate the fields. They are marvellous scenes and whole families come to look at them. The children rush around excitedly with their less active grandparents in tow. After seeing half a dozen of the belenes and walking through the streets where all the trees are lit with lights, is time to stop at a bar and have a drink of hot chocolate with some churros to dunk in it.

A week after Christmas comes New Year’s Eve, with the champagne and the grapes. Let me explain the grapes. Just before midnight each person prepares a plate with 12 grapes. Then when the old clock in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid strikes midnight, and everyone is watching it on television, we eat one grape for each of the 12 strokes of the clock. This is not easy. Beginners to the custom start spluttering with a mouth full of grapes after just six or seven strokes. Over the years you become more skilful and finish the last grape on the twelfth stroke. I have seen some of the older members of the family quietly pick out the smallest grapes at about half past eleven and hide them on a saucer ready for midnight, though when confronted, they always zealously deny this.

Then, on the night of 5 January comes the third feast, Reyes, the feast of the Three Kings. In every city and town in the country, however humble, the Three Kings, dressed in all their oriental splendour parade in a long procession with their retinue of attendants, page boys and groups of dancers and musicians. The children watch the procession in the street and, before they go to bed, they put out some corn for the camels and a glass of brandy for the Kings because both need some sustenance after delivering presents to every house in the town during the night. In the morning the children open the presents which the Kings have left.

The next day is a holiday for the children to play with the toys and for the adults to recover from the long revelry of Christmas. Then on 7 January the children go back to school, and life in Palma becomes serious again.

This is our second year with Covid, as it is for everyone. In spite of this, enjoy your Christmas as much as you can!