Becoming Spanish Over the Holidays

This blog post is about the thoughts that occurred in the mind of a Slovenian girl whilst being immersed into the Spanish world for New Year’s Eve, the Three Kings and everything in between. I’ve been to Valencia many times but never during the holiday period. The holidays in Spain begin before Christmas and end on 7th January. I only arrived in Valencia on 29th December, so that’s when the adventure began. As far as I know, Christmas isn’t celebrated very differently than in other European countries. Some people give presents to each other, some don’t, and most have Christmas dinner or lunch (or both) with the family.

I arrived here in late December expecting 20 degrees Celsius (because that’s how high the temperatures were a few weeks earlier). But no: it was pretty much the same as in my hometown, around five degrees in the morning and fifteen during the day. The high level of humidity in Valencia makes it feel colder than it really is. Another important factor are the floors: most Spanish apartments have them covered in some sort of marble tiles. This is great in the summer and a little less great in the winter months.

Las doce uvas de la suerte

The deal for New Year’s Eve was that everyone would cook something, and then we’d have dinner together, which would be followed by drinking, music and perhaps migrating to another party in another barrio. Everything sounded pretty much familiar and not at all different from what I’d normally do in Slovenia. Just that we met at 10 pm. My friends and I would usually meet at 7 or 8 for New Year’s and not have dinner later than 9. Well, we started eating at 11.

Las doce uvas
Las doce uvas

By the time we had finished, it was almost midnight, probably my first sober beginning of the new year in years. The grapes for luck had to be prepared quickly. Each of us grabbed a cup or glass with 12 grapes in it. We turned on a talk show on TV, and as they started counting the twelve seconds before midnight, we began to gulp down the grapes, one per second. I must very proudly say that I managed to do it.

Then everyone started hugging and wishing each other a happy new year, much like at home, but with fewer kisses. This was a surprise as the Spanish are usually very into kisses on the cheeks. Also, in Slovenia, we always open a bottle of sparkling wine at midnight, while I basically had to encourage them to do it, and we only opened it some ten minutes into 2020.

And then the drinking started for real, and the instrument playing as half of the people at the party were musicians. This was followed by karaoke, lots of laughter and noise. Some people left, some new ones arrived, and suddenly it was four in the morning, the time we’d usually call it a night in Slovenia. Instead, we took a taxi and drove to some kind of an industrial zone and joined another, bigger party. I think I went to bed at half-past six, earlier than most people I started the evening with.

The period between the first and the fifth

I think that the biggest difference between the holidays in Spain and Slovenia is that the first of January isn’t a big deal in Spain. In my family, we always open the presents in the morning of the new year and then have lunch which is always sarma because hello, ex-Yugoslavia (we’ve been filling it with soy instead of meat the last couple of years). There’s no such a thing as Father Frost in Spain, no presents on the first and no lunch.

Things don’t slow down in Spain after the first, at least the shopping doesn’t. The Dia de los Reyes is on 6th January, and that’s what everyone’s waiting – and frantically shopping – for. To many (if not most) Spanish people, the Three Kings Day is the most important holiday. Some Spaniards only give each other presents on the evening (or morning/lunchtime) before this holiday and not for Christmas. I went shopping on the third, and so did the rest of Valencia. It felt like the days between the 20th and the 31st in Slovenia.

Dia de los Reyes

On 6th January, my boyfriend Álvaro, his brother and I hopped on (the wrong) train and somehow managed to arrive in »Álvaro’s village«: Enguera. He refers to it as »mi pueblo«, and so do half of his friends (but about other villages). Apparently, it’s very common to live in a big city and have relatives in a village that you visit several times per year. Most of these villages are not very close to the cities; his, for example, is an hour’s drive away from Valencia.

This is how the night unfolded. We (Álvaro’s close family, aunts, uncles and cousins) first visited his grandparents’ house where the gift exchange took place. The youngest of his cousins (who apparently still believes in the existence of the three kings) ecstatically pulled the presents from under the tree and gave each their own. Then we repeated the same thing in an uncle’s and an aunt’s house. Álvaro’s father brought a book to read while the thing took place (which I found very amusing). Then we had dinner with the grandparents. I had a falafel and hummus salad, while they ate jamón, seafood and some of my falafels too.

The big lunch

The next morning, I convinced Alvaro to take me on a walk around the surrounding hills to see the ruins of a medieval castle. When we got back, it was time for the big lunch. All the important Spanish lunches and dinners start with the picoteo (some sort of an appetizer). The picoteo is usually so rich that I’m quite full before the main dish. At least in this family, the picoteo usually consists of salted roasted nuts (oh my god), various spreads, cheeses, crackers, seafood, jamón, olives, … Most people drink beer, cider or wine. This was the most unproblematic part for me because I could eat nuts and sneaked in some hummus which I had with crackers and olives. This went on for about an hour. At around three pm, the main dish came: pork, potato salad, a salmon roll, and for me veggie couscous.

After the main dish, we had fruit, but very few people were interested in it. Everyone was waiting for the Roscon de Reyes. The roscón is a type of cake (ours was filled with chocolate and whipped cream), cut into pieces. There’s a plastic figure in one piece and a dry bean in another. Whoever gets the figure will be lucky, while the person who finds the bean must traditionally pay for the cake.

Roscón de Reyes
Roscón de Reyes

Spain vs. Slovenia

I noticed two main differences between festive lunches (at least when it comes to mine and Alvaro’s families). The first one is the lack of veggies in his. Yes, I’m vegan, but no one else in my family is, and despite that, they always prepare a salad, two or three plus some cooked/roasted vegetables. There wasn’t a single vegetable on the Spanish table (if you don’t count the potatoes, and I don’t). The second difference is that the huge and yummy variety of appetizers isn’t a thing in Slovenia. In winter we might have soup, in summer we might not have anything at all. Consequently, we eat bigger portions and often have seconds, which the Spanish don’t (because they simply can’t after that appetizer).

Back to reality (and to Slovenia)

And then it was Tuesday the 7th and back to ordinary life. Adults went back to work and kids back to school; shops were reopened and normal life resumed. I thought it was a bit harsh because in Slovenia we get a day off after Christmas and after the 1st of January, so at least we have enough time to overcome the hangover and stop feeling sick from greasy food and desserts. On the other hand, I think that the Spanish don’t get quite as wasted as we do, nor do they stuff themselves to the point of feeling sick. What can I say, cultures vary.

The holidays in Spain showed me lots of new things, but at the same time, they remembered me of what I already know about Spain and Spaniards. The Spanish are very sociable, family means the world to them, they’re generous, they eat very late and they love their traditions. What I loved the most was how welcome I felt. This was my first time here for the holidays, but they made me feel like it was the tenth, like I’m one of them, despite my pale skin and my broken Spanish.

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