Christmas in Jerez

December 2007

I remember staying overnight with new friends in Catalonia in March 2004, and picking up a Time Magazine (International) for bedtime reading. On the cover was a banner proclaiming "Spain Rocks!!" Much of the issue celebrated the emergence of the country as the vanguard of a new 21st Century European lifestyle: music, fine arts, sports, fashion – it seemed that Spain was the newly acknowledged leader of just about everything.

But, as you know, the events of our era hurtle on at a dizzying (and sometimes unanticipated) pace. Within a couple of days, the naïve enthusiasm of the Time article was tempered by a terrorist bombing in Madrid. 

Since then there has been a radical political, cultural and social revolution in Spain. The amount of housing and other construction has increased at an astonishing rate, as well as the cost. Traditional norms have been discounted in a carefree manner as Spain is intoxicated by its new position in the modern world.

Beneath this excitement there is a foundation of tradition; a plumb line which keeps the nation centered. Over the thousands of years of Spain's history, cultures and people have come and gone, often leaving an imprint that has enhanced the culture of Spain, whether it was the Phoenicians, Romans, Carthaginians, Visigoths, Moors or even the Americans today. 

Nevertheless I sense fidelity in the Spanish soul which transcends the various twists and turns of fortune. This constancy is revisited each year at about this time, when Spaniards gather to renew their familial and cultural roots each year. Of course Spaniards hold this in common with other people with hallowed pasts. Often cultural centering is expressed in rituals such as the Seder, the Mass and the Muslim Call to Prayer.

In order to renew my own Spanish bearings, I asked my dear friend Isabella Diaz what were the Christmas holidays like in Jerez de la Frontera before Spain "Rocked." (You can read more about the Diaz family in my Update The Shoemaker's Son.)

She told me that when she was a little girl some 70 years ago, there was no tinsel, Santa, Rudolph and Christmas trees – all of which have insinuated themselves into the commercial Spanish culture. In the 'good old days' a typical Jerez celebration for the evening of Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) is what they called "Zambomba." 

Originally it was celebrated in the houses where more than one family lived (casas de vecinos). Neighbors would gather in the downstairs patio around a fire set inside an oil drum and sing "villancicos flamencos," the traditional Christmas songs from Jerez. (Remember in that time neighbors knew each other for a lifetime as nobody moved away as we are apt to do at the drop of a hat!)

Some of the neighbors would accompany the singing with improvised musical instruments, which were made of whatever material was available:

• Zamboba – drum like instrument made of a terracotta jar covered on the top with an animal skin. The skin had a central hole through which a long stick was inserted. The stick rubbed against the stretched skin making a dull noise. Periodically the skin is moistened with water so that it remains flexible. 
• Tambourines, or similar shapes, with small pairs of cymbals attached 
• Almirez – a brass mortar with pestle taken from the kitchen 
• An anisette bottle swept with a spoon

The music was an accompaniment to singing and clapping the complex rhythms of flamenco – which has echoes of Moorish Al-Andalus. A Christian celebration enhanced by a bit of the Muslim past – I love it!

Traditionally one or two of the neighbors goes around the group offering some drinks - anisette, wine, etc. - and some snacks or tapas, as the others spontaneously sing Christmas songs Flamenco style. Today "Zambombas" have evolved into a more massive celebration in neighborhood squares, bars and even clubs. People still sing "villancicos" and pass around drinks and snacks but, Isabella assured me, they do not light up fires in bars!

This is a traditional menu of typical foods Jerezanos serve for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years celebrations in Andalucía:

First Course:
Caldo de Puchero, chicken broth with potatoes, garbanzo beans, garden vegetables and tocino - salt pork. After it has simmered on the stove for a while, the contents are strained to produce a rich hearty broth. Before serving, boiled rice and chopped hard boiled egg and tiny pieces of Jamón Serrano are added. 

Second Course:
Pollo (Chicken) or Pavo (Turkey) accompanied by an ensalada or vegetables. Isabella confided that in the old days when life was hard and food was scarce, it was a feast to have chicken. In modern times of prosperity one might serve mariscos (shellfish: shrimp, lobsters) along with the typical tapa of Manchego cheese and Ibérico ham. Cordero al Horno (roast lamb) or Besugo al Horno (baked Sea Bream) has been added to the list of foods. 

Isabella listed the sweet treats for the Christmas season, many of which had Middle Eastern roots - they were globalized before it was fashionable! I was delighted to see that many of the items we have discovered for La Tienda during our many trips. 

• Pestiños (honey-coated sweet fritters) 
• Rosquitos (almond, honey, anisette, sugar) 
• Rosco de Navidad (cake with inner coats of chocolate, cream or sweetened pumpkin and syrup) 
Mazapán (marzipan) 
Turrón (candy with honey and almonds, egg yolks, nuts, fruit or chocolate) 
Mantecados, polvorones, alfajores 
Peladillas (almonds covered in white hard candy) 
• Buñuelos (fried small portions of water, flour, aniseed and anisette dough)

Manzanilla, Fino and Amontillado sherries are the most typical beverages, along with Cava sparkling wine and Anisette.

At Midnight the Christmas Eve gaiety is interrupted by the ringing of church bells calling the families to "La Misa Del Gallo." It is called the "Mass of the Rooster" because tradition says that the only time that a rooster has ever crowed at midnight was on the day that Jesus was born. 

Another long standing tradition in preparation for Christmas is to visit the "Belén" or a Nativity scene. Isabella recalled that some years ago individuals took great pride in the meticulous construction of the Belen or crèche. Public and private entities - such as banks, neighborhood associations, flamenco associations and schools - would set up within their facilities their own "Belén" and would hang a sign at the street entrance welcoming the general public to visit them. (In an earlier Reflection I mentioned seeing a beautiful Belen in the window of a local travel agency, carefully placed within an open suitcase!)

Today the essential message of the Manger in Bethlehem has become secularized, as is most of our culture. To construct a crèche is mainly a hobby, rather than an act of devotion. Every year people make their own Nativity scenes and enter them in a contest. The local "Asociación de Belenistas" gathers a large number of small Nativity scenes and exhibits them in a large show room run by the City Hall.

Isabella and her daughter Olga wanted to highlight one of the "must-see" Christmas season activities for children who live in Jerez de la Frontera. It is a visit to the Servant of their Majesties where they send the wish letters for the "Día de Reyes" (Three Kings Day). 

The activity is in the local Moorish castle(!) and is sponsored by the Ayuntamiento (city government) of Jerez de la Frontera. 

Approximately fifteen "servants" are there dressed in Moorish clothes to greet the boys and girls and other members of their extended families. They entertain the children with little games and stories while the boys and girls wait to talk to the "Mayordomo" (Paje Real). 

Other servants have their own desks where they issue and stamp certificates for the submission of the children's wish letters. The setting is amazing, very realistic for the children and exciting for all! It gets better every year!

Celebrating a Christian holiday in a Moorish Castle!! I wish these two cultures could get along that well in the "real" world. Perhaps it is something to pray for! 

Our family extends to you and your loved ones a blessed holiday season. 

¡Felices Fiestas y Feliz Navidad!