23+ years ago one of the delights of our first festive season in Tenerife was the lack of commercialization. In the whole of Los Cristianos, there were two shops selling decorations, and the Spanish treats and “festive fayre” didn’t appear in the shops until well into December. It was nice to opt out of the commercialization at the time, although I have mixed feelings about it now.
Christmas in the market of Nuestra Señora de Africa in Santa Cruz last year
That first Christmas marked the first time in six months of living here that I felt a twinge of homesickness. It was only a twinge, but the lack of the familiar, the stress of shopping not reaching expectations, and the worries about presents and cards not arriving or departing in time made it a little odd. I’m the first to admit I’m a Christmas junkie, not in a religious sense, but in that it is a time to dwell on family and friends, and our hopes for a better world. The warmy fuzzies of the familiarities of Christmas are one of my anchors in a world I prefer to be more novel and adventurous overall. However, it turned out to be good to have a new way of looking at Christmas too, as it usually is.
Christmas lights in the church square in Los Cristianos last year
My kids were 4 and 6, and worries had to be allayed that Santa would find his way from England, whether we’d advised him of our change of address, and how would reindeer cope with the lack of snow. At that time, I was still a bit ambivalent about my religious beliefs, and a minor revelation for me was realizing that our warm and sunny weather was much more like that first Christmas than the snow-covered scenes on Christmas cards we were used to. It was a time for learning that Christmas traditions vary from country to country too. It was our first introduction to the Three Kings as much more important players in the story than in our English traditions…..Spanish kids know the name of every one. Do you? We always tried to combine traditions, so that the kids would learn about both cultures, even though it did turn out a tad more expensive, buying extra presents for the Kings to bring on the night of January 5th, when they were small, and in later years meant a test of endurance, as to whether one could eat an entire feast on the night of the 24th, followed by another lunchtime on the 25th.
Over the years, Christmas on the islands has become more commercialized and begun earlier and earlier. This year it seemed fitting, because so many people needed to carefully count pennies and tighten belts, so that they should be able to begin shopping earlier to spread the cost seemed right.
Christmas here these days is pretty much the same as it is on the mainland or in Europe or elsewhere in the “western” world. We begin to shop and plan some weeks ahead, the giving of gifts (though cards have never really caught on) is of increasing importance, and every workplace has its Christmas party, with all the attendant implications. There are differences, though, and the first one you notice is that December 8th is a holiday. This is the date of the Immaculate Conception (the shortest gestation in history apparently), being close to The Day of the Constitution, December 6th, it forms a nice, long weekend almost every year, and a kind of introduction to the season
Afterwards, everyone trudges back to work until around midday on Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena. If you have to work after around 3pm on Noche Buena it’s awfully bad luck for you – of course this is a resort island, so there are plenty of unlucky people around, but on the other hand, it’s heartening to see so many businesses which do stick with tradition and close early. This is the most important night or day of the year for a family. Everyone tries to get home, a bit like Thanksgiving in the US. No presents, but a feast and the enjoyment of the company of friends and family. Christmas Day is for recovering, and then it’s back to the grindstone until the night of January 5th (yep of course New Year is celebrated, but I’m talking Christmas here) when the Three Kings come and bring their gifts for the children. I used to explain to people that Christmas was religious and the Kings was the commercialized celebration, but, as everywhere, the religious aspect of the season is dwindling – the importance of being with those you love, on the other hand, seems to be increasing, which is obviously nice.
Every town and village, as well as lots of shops and other establishments have their own “belen” or nativity scene. This one in 2009 in the Plaza de Candelaria in Santa Cruz depicts the characters in Canarian traditional dress.
I’ve begun my countdown a little late this year, what with the tooth infection, tax bills and one thing and another, however, I can say now, in the words of the song, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!”