At Christmas, all roads lead home. – Marjorie Holmes
I didn’t fully appreciate the 12 Days of Christmas until I moved to Spain. What I knew about it mainly came from the song that detailed the expanding number of increasingly exotic gifts. But except for the more diligent Catholic relatives, no one in my immediate family or circle of friends fully celebrated the entirety of the holiday through The Epiphany or, as it’s known in Spain, Tres Reyes. Although the work world is changing, for almost my entire professional life the holiday was basically two days: Christmas and New Year’s Day, with work resuming in full swing by January 3.
Now, after four Christmases in Spain, I have come to appreciate how nice it is to have a gentler re-entry into life post-new year. Even though many businesses are open, there’s a slower, more languid feeling in this liminal time between Christmas and Tres Reyes – the latter of which in Spain, is every bit as important and festive as December 25th.
I have easily fallen into the groove of a holiday season that lasts almost two weeks. For one thing, it’s a lot warmer, and for another we live at the beach. There’s a festive weirdness to Christmas in a seaside town, where time and space already seem suspended. It’s like living in a Jimmy Buffett song. People lounge on the beach in bathing suits and Santa hats, or sit outdoors at local cafes sipping coffee or gin and tonics, where the dress code ranges from silly Christmas shirts made to look like human torsos in Santa suits, complete with freckled cleavage and six-pack abs, to fabulously elegant holiday outfits; women in stilettos and form-fitting dresses, men sitting over coffee in crisp jackets, one leg crossed over the other exposing a bright flash of holiday socks. The franticness of the season is tempered a bit; it’s hard to get too stressed searching for gifts and decorations when Santas stroll along the paseos in red felt coats and board shorts and there are twinkling lights strung amid the fronds of the palm trees.
This year our holiday unfolded a bit unexpectedly with a last-minute Christmas Eve invitation from people Tom got to know the past year while I was back in the States for a job. As we didn’t have any plans other than to spend the evening together around the fire, we accepted. It was a potluck of sorts: a large, boozy, food-filled gathering but with kids running around an almost dangerously large and rather precariously erected Christmas tree, and spilling out through the open french doors to the pool deck. One couple brought an impressive array of homemade cookies, including moon pies as big as bread plates. They also proceeded to set up a Sex on the Beach punch station, taking turns ladling hefty pours into waiting glasses.
A few hours in, the kids had gone feral, engaged in a Lord of the Flies war outside with the adults oblivious (and obliterated) inside. Two guests broke out guitars and began playing Christmas songs like “Feliz Navid” and “Feed the World.” Everyone joined in the singing. The host’s mother was visiting from England. Originally from India, she quietly shepherded me into a side room to a crock pot of her bubbling curry. The aroma almost floored me. After table after table of mostly sweets, I devoured a bowl of savory warm spiciness while bending over the sink so I wouldn’t spill stew on my new Christmas dress. She watched me approvingly in her elegant black suit flecked with rhinestones, her hair and makeup impeccable, encouraging me to have seconds. It was only afterwards I discovered it contained two foods I swore I’d never eat: pork and kidneys.
On Christmas Day, we awoke and spent a lazy morning over coffee, sitting by the fire and our little tree with the laminated photo of our late cat, Vino, as the “angel” topper, listening to carols, and opening presents. We’ve never been big gift-givers. Like so many people we know, we prefer experiences to things. And if there is something that one or the other of us really wants or needs, we tend to buy it, either for ourselves or for the other. So I was thrilled to pour out my stocking that Tom had stuffed with my favorite toothpaste, bar soap, and deodorant. I’m nothing if not practical. And in turn, he was delighted I had managed to source real maple syrup – a difficult-to-find and expensive commodity in Spain.
Afterwards, we decided to go for a walk along the paseo at the Arenal. At the last minute we put on bathing suits under our walking clothes, just in case, as many people here go for a ritual dip in the sea on Christmas morning. It was brilliantly sunny and not very cold, so we walked to the puerto, a distance of about two miles. Along the way we passed families, couples, individuals, and groups of friends all dressed in holiday finery, some also sporting Santa hats or felt reindeer antlers. Children wove through the crowds, breaking in new bikes, scooters, and roller blades. Even the dogs were in their Christmas best. Many people we knew, most we did not, yet we greeted each other regardless: smiling, waving, and calling out “Feliz Navidad!” and “Happy Christmas!” as we passed by.
At the puerto, we saw a group of people on the beach in bathing suits and Santa hats, some with coats thrown over their shoulders. It turned out to be guests from the party the night before, continuing the revelry. They waved us over and we reached them just in time to strip down to our suits and jump in the sea en masse. It was cold, but not in a way that steals your breath right from your chest cavity, and I was able to stay in for close to ten minutes. Afterwards, we cracked open bottles of cava or beer and sat on the warm rocks to dry off in the sun, as passers by saluted us from the coziness of their warm sweaters and dry hair.
Later that afternoon, we walked to the home of our good friends for a proper Christmas lunch, English-style. Over cava, we opened Christmas crackers, donning the obligatory red paper crowns before taking our places around the table to feast on roast turkey, cauliflower cheese, potato roasties and mash, carrots and parsnips, chestnut stuffing, and giblet gravy. After, the lights were dimmed, and dessert was brought out: Christmas pudding set aflame, with sides of fresh cream and brandy butter. We sang along tipsily to the figgy pudding stanza from “We wish you a Merry Christmas.” The pudding was followed by a cheese board that stretched nearly half the length of the table, with over a dozen cheeses their daughter brought from her university town near Lake Konstanz. After, we swapped gifts in a rousing game of “Bad Santa,” laughingly bickering over the choicest ones, before finally throwing up our hands in defeat, realizing yet again the abundance surrounding us. There was nothing more any of us needed or wanted. At least in that moment, our lives were perfect.
The days following were a blur of events: Boxing Day at our friends’ home in the nearby town of Moraira. There was a D.J. and dancing followed by an enormous pot-luck buffet with more food than I’d seen in ages: pots of chili, plates of grilled steak, meatballs in sauce, green salads, coleslaw, smoked salmon, pasta salads, cheeses, grilled vegetables, brownies, lemon bars, a homemade Christmas cake. The next night was another party at a house across town our friend from Prague had rented for the week with her friends from Germany and Bosnia. It was warm enough to grill the fish and meat outside while we stood around the pool drinking beer in jeans and sweatshirts, exhausted from the previous few days but not yet ready to surrender the celebrations. And over the days that followed, we continued the fiesta almost like it was our job: dinner of pulled pork and blue corn tacos in the pueblo one night, hiking the Montgo “eye” the next morning; the day after that kayaking at Cala de Portixol.
On New Year’s Eve morning, Tom went grocery shopping and discovered black eyed peas – a rare commodity here – at a tiny international market one road back from the beach. Meanwhile, I had taken our friend’s college-aged daughter, Summer, who was staying with us the week before starting her study abroad in Barcelona, thrift shopping. We prowled through racks of clothing, on the lookout for something fun and festive. Two days prior she had been invited to a New Year’s Eve celebration of house parties and disco-hopping with our friends’ daughter, her boyfriend, and their friends. Back home, Summer went to try on her new outfits, I set the peas to soak for the next day, and Tom got to work on guacamole made fresh from avocados a friend gave us from her prolific tree.
We had been invited to New Year’s Eve at the home of good friends for a festive family evening of dinner, music, and games. One of their sons, just 13 years old and a budding chef, prepared a Filipino dish of chicken legs soaked overnight in a marinade of soy sauce and exactly 40 garlic cloves. Tom made fish tacos with lime and red cabbage coleslaw. We played Secret Santa, Bad Santa, and the Hat Game; we played music, and more music, and we danced and danced and danced. At 11:50 we moved to the front yard overlooking the puerto and Arenal. Twelve seconds before midnight, we choked down our twelve grapes – one per second – before the clock struck twelve. As the calendar flipped we banged pots and pans and watched the fireworks over the water from neighborhoods across Jávea and along the horizon of nearby towns. We joined the neighbors raucously shouting Feliz Año to other houses before heading back inside for more dancing, drinking, and dart games with increasingly tough standards: one leg, one eye closed, standing 20 meters away. Finally, at 4:00am, all six of us humans, plus two dogs and three cats, made our way to bed.
On January 1st, Tom and I awoke at 9:30, bleary from just a few hours of sleep, but nevertheless energized by the bright morning sun and the promise of the New Year. We drove down the hill from our friends’ home to the Arenal. It was chilly but not cold, so we walked to puerto and back again, slipping out of our jackets within the first half mile, and waving at the joggers and dog walkers along the way. We got home in time to eat a late breakfast scramble of leftover grilled fish, eggs, coleslaw, and salad. We had to hurry as the annual Polar Bear Plunge at the Arenal beach was set to begin at 1:00pm. At 12:15, Summer teetered home sans shoes and mascara under her eyes, yet gamely hurried to change into her bathing suit and sweats. We got to the beach just in time to squeeze in among the throngs of people standing at the water’s edge shivering in their bathing suits, many also wearing crazy costumes like tutus, superhero masks, or Santa suits. We stripped down just as the air horn blew, holding hands as we ran in the sea with hundreds of others, laughing and waving to the less-brave souls who stood on the shore in coats and scarves, filming us crazies. After, we dressed and headed to the strand of restaurants and cafes for strong black coffee, hot chocolate, and burgers before heading home for steaming showers followed by the obligatory good luck dinner of black eyed peas, kale, and cabbage.
Finally, on January 5th – Twelfth Night – after a leisurely morning of coffee and the newspapers, we shuffled around in our pajamas and slippers taking down the tree. We packed up the ornaments, wrapping the delicate ones, as we do each year, in bubble wrap, appreciating the memories in each all over again: the collection from Mount Vernon in my home state of Virginia; the pair of blue ceramic hippos named William, mascot of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and a gift to Tom from his mom, by all accounts a remarkable woman. She died before I met my husband but I feel a connection to her through them. We carefully wrap the Jonathan Adler ornaments in signature white clay: the elegant, almond-eyed cat, the peace sign, the his-and-her egg faces, all from our dear friend, Autumn. Although not fragile, I lovingly wrap the little crocheted snowflakes my grandmother made when I was a child, and as I do, I remember her kitchen in Northfield, Ohio with the little sign that said “I used to feel sorry for myself for having no shoes until I met a man with no feet,” and I think of her chocolate oatmeal cookies hot from the oven, or the sliced cucumbers she would serve in a chilled cream sauce. Last of all, we take down the tree topper: a laminated photo of our late, and certified screwball of a cat, Vino – on which Tom photoshopped red wings – and we laugh all over again at the irony of him being an angel.
Later that afternoon, we met friends at Mira Luna, a cafe in the puerto ideally situated to watch the annual Three Kings parade. Over flutes of cava garnished with three blueberries, we cheered on the marching bands, the groups of drummers, the Moorish dancers, the young girls dressed as elves, the couple dressed as Mary and Joseph walking along next to a donkey, and the grand finale: the float carrying Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar draped in their signature robes of green, gold, and purple. Each group that passed threw handfuls of candy to the kids lining the streets with outstretched hands. This year the moon was almost full. It rose in the sky over Cabo San Antonio as dusk fell and the last of the parade floats disappeared down the street. At the same time the Christmas lights blinked on: the decorative signs strung across the streets, the big Christmas tree on the paseo, and the palms along the beach. As we drove home, I counted back and realized that we had been out for twelve nights straight: perfect for Yule.
By the following Monday, I was ready for re-entry into regular life. I found myself craving my normal routine. Instead of predictable and humdrum, it now felt comforting in its stability and groundness. Although the non-stop holiday fun was wonderful and memorable, after almost three weeks too much of a good thing was, well, almost too much. I was ready to let it go. At least for another year.
In some cultures they call Three Kings (Tres Reyes) “Little Christmas” We need this – one more “little” Christmas to close out a lively but often frenetic holiday season which, in a lot of places, is crammed into a handful of days. You might get one more last hurrah with New Year’s Eve, but after that it’s back to reality. I always found this challenging. There’s so much build-up: the stores start stocking Christmas items the day after Halloween, and Black Friday is advertised incessantly. But after all the hype, it’s suddenly over. Full stop.
The thing is, this time of year, when it’s colder and darker, we instinctively slow down. It’s an evolutionary invitation to hunker inside, to cook and to eat, to light lights and play music. It’s a natural, and logical, time for a break. And we all need it. We need the rest. We need to process. We need to chill out and sleep in. We need eat leftover Christmas cookies and pumpkin pie for breakfast and to stay in our pajamas until noon — or longer. To me, it’s not so much about religious beliefs as it is about recognizing and surrendering to the rhythm of the seasons and the body.
In addition to the break, I also realized, at least for me, that it helps to do something completely different while being apart from our families. It mitigates that nostalgic pang of holiday homesickness. Giving in to new experiences is easier logistically, not to mention emotionally, than trying to recreate traditions or memories that, in the end, are time and place specific. This year instead of trying to replicate the past I gave myself permission to embrace the present. And in doing so, I was able to appreciate both.
By the way, this year Tom surprised me with a special gift: a custom made tile with an image of Vino, for whom we named our casita. Just yesterday he plastered it to the front gate. Talk about extending the season.
Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año, 28 days late, or 327 days early. Wishing you and yours health, happiness, and love in 2023 and beyond.