Welcome everyone Sandra in Spain - FlamencoI’m Sandra Piddock, and I’m a freelance writer, dividing my time between Spain and the UK. I’ll write about anything that interests and/or challenges me, and I like to focus on the lighter side of life whenever possible.. Read more
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Spain Celebrates

This page is a testament to the Spanish capacity to make a party out of anything at all. There are so many fiestas, it would be rude not to take part. So, here we’ll spread the word about what’s going on in Spain. Let me know what’s happening in your corner of Spain, and I’ll push it for you.

Dia del Virgen del Carmen: 16 July

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Many Spanish towns and villages host a fiesta in mid July, and it’s not just because they like fireworks and processions, although they do figure prominently in the proceedings. The Virgen del Carmen is another incarnation of the Virgin Mary, based on a religious reading from the Old Testament, and Dia del Virgen del Carmen is celebrated on 16 July each year.

The Virgen del Carmen is the patron saint of more than 100 towns and villages in Spain, including my own home village of Algorfa, which is about 10 miles inland from Torrevieja on the Costa Blanca. She’s also the patron saint of sailors and the Spanish navy, so she’s often known as ‘Stella Maris,’ or ‘Star of the Seas.’

Most towns and villages spend a week or more celebrating the fiesta. The Saturday before the 16 July sees the opening of the festivities, with a parade of some description. In Algorfa, there is a Sunday morning Romeria, or pilgrimage, when the statue of the Virgen del Carmen is carried from the parish church to the Ermita chapel, just outside the village. Several hundred ‘pilgrims’ follow, and there is a service of thanksgiving, followed by a breakfast of sardines, bread, and beer or water. As with many fiestas, the men do the cooking, and it’s fascinating to see them flip huge trays of sardines so they’re evenly cooked. In the afternoon, there is a paella making competition, after which the Virgen is carried back to the parish church.

Various events take place during the week, culminating in another procession and a big firework display on the Dia del Virgen del Carmen. Everyone is welcome to join in – locals, expats and holidaymakers, and there is plenty of free food, drink and entertainment for all.

If you’ve never been to a Dia del Virgen del Carmen fiesta, make this the year that you do. It’s moving, it’s fun, it’s entertaining, but above all it’s traditional Spain, and it’s a chance to integrate with your Spanish neighbours and celebrate one of Spain’s most important saints. Nobody does fiestas like the Spanish, and no fiesta is quite like Virgen del Carmen. Once you’ve been, you’ll never want to miss it again.

Dia del Virgen del Carmen

First Romeria and first patronal fiesta – it only took 7 years!

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In Algorfa, Fiesta Week fits around Dia De Virgen del Carmen on 16th July. Normally, we’re in England then, but because of my accident – which loyal readers know about and the rest probably don’t care about – we’re later going over this year. We’ve lived here 7 years, and this is the first time we’ve been to  Fiesta Week, so we were really looking forward to it.

There are activities on all week, but for the village, the Romeria is important, and only exceeded on the ‘need to go there’ scale by the Dia De Virgen del Carmen, so we resigned ourselves to an early start, in order to muster in the village square at 8.30 for the beginning of the proceedings. If you’re wondering what a Romeria is, it’s a short pilgrimage, usually to a rural or mountain retreat. In Algorfa’s case, the Romeria is to take the Virgen ‘home’ to La Ermita Chapel from the church in the square. While she’s there, there’s a Mass and celebrations, and then she’s returned to the village in the evening.

It wasn’t a good start – we didn’t wake up till 8.15, but we weren’t worried. This is Spain after all – the procession will never get off on time, will it? Well, yesterday it did, for once, and when we got to the village we had to do an unseemly sprint to catch up with the procession. Apparently the Virgen doesn’t like to be kept hanging about when there’s an Away Day in the offing.

It seemed like the whole village had turned out to accompany the Virgen to her home. There was even a horse and cart and another, beautiful black horse who was a right show off. Almost all of the pilgrims were carrying long bamboo staffs, which were about 9 feet long, at a guess, with blue neckerchiefs and Panama hats. As we were so late, we were at the back of the procession, so it was quite a sight to see all the staffs waving in the air as the procession made its way through the village and along the CV920 Benejuzar road.

At the front, the Costaleros proudly carried the statue of the Virgen, and there were several rest periods as they set down the heavy paso to take a well-earned rest. It’s a great honour to get the opportunity to carry the representation of Algorfa’s patron saint, and the Costaleros have a great social life too, so they’re happy to do that important task.

The frequent breaks gave the rest of us time to whizz up and down the procession, taking photos, and I got so carried away one of the local policemen called out ‘Sandra, cuidado!’ I’d strayed into the right hand carriageway, which was still carrying traffic. The ‘Cuidado!’ was to warn me of the approach of about 30 cyclists. Now, seeing those pert lycra covered backsides moving around does bowl me over, but I didn’t fancy being literally bowled over, and ending up like a flattened rabbit on the road, so I shifted sharpish, I can tell you. Then I spent the next five minutes wondering how he knew my name, because I didn’t recognise him, and I haven’t had a run in with the police since the unfortunate musunderstanding about the roundabout thing. I couldn’t come up with anything, unless Sam Biddles had introduced me to him, and I’d forgotten, although I couldn’t imagine I’d have forgotten those dark haired good looks and fit body. Cold shower time, I think! But I digress.

Anyway, we arrived at La Ermita safely, and the Virgen was parked reverently in the marquee for the duration of the Mass in her honour. No way would all those people have fitted into the chapel – in fact, they couldn’t all get into the marquee either. We could have done with a Spanish equivalent of the big screen on Henman Hill at Wimbledon, but we all managed to catch most of it.

I’m not religious, but I do respect those who are, and I really didn’t expect the service to get to me, but it did. There was an atmosphere of reverence, combined with the Spanish default setting of enjoying every moment of every occasion, and it was a joy to see. And when it was time to take the Virgen ‘home’ into the chapel, and the Costaleros swayed with her as the musicians and choir sang, before the whole crowd began to clap, I got very tearful. It was one of the most moving moments I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing.

As the choir sang in the chapel, in front of the Virgen, the sardines were cooked by the hombres of the village who had been tirelessly working away all through the service. Everyone was treated to a breakfast of sardines with lemon and bread, and beer to wash it down, and it was fascinating to watch the men at work, laying the sardines out between two grids, placing them on the barbecues, and expertly turning them. Although Spain is still a very macho society, when it comes to the big events, the men take over the cooking, allowing the mujeres to relax and catch up with their friends and family – at least until it’s time to serve the food, anyway.

We left after the sardines, although everyone was settled in for the day, because we were returning for the paella competition in the afternoon. We couldn’t leave Paddy alone for all that time, and in any case, we needed to freshen up.

On the way back to the village, we talked about what we’d just experienced, and two things were foremost in our thoughts. The first one was, if they did anything like this in England, no way would the sardines and beer be provided for nothing. In fact, they’d probably do like they do with the strawberries at Wimbledon, and hike up the prices for the occasion. And Health and Safety would worry about the open fires, and that the men were lifting too much and didn’t have oven gloves and safety goggles, so breakfast would be cancelled.

The other thing that got to both of us was that we seemed to be just about the only foreigners there. Now, Algorfa is very big on integration, and there were plenty of sardines, so they’d catered for everyone who wanted to come along. It seemed a bit sad that more of the people who have made Algorfa their home didn’t come along and share in the celebrations of the second most important day of Fiesta Week. I can honestly say that it was a great privilege to be there, and you don’t even need to understand Spanish to be welcomed and to appreciate the atmosphere. So, why not go along to your local Romeria? You will have a great time, and make a lot of new friends.

El Dia del Padre, 19 March – how does it compare with the UK and America?

A Fallas figure. Seems a shame to burn it , doesn't it?

A Fallas figure. Seems a shame to burn it , doesn’t it?

Father’s Day, or El Dia del Padre, is celebrated on 19th March, and, as in many cases in Spain, the fiesta has religious as well as social connections.

Father’s Day is also St. Joseph’s Day. As Jesus’ father, Joseph is the most important father in history. It’s a public holiday in Spain, although some regions may choose another day instead of St Joseph’s Day.

Father’s Day as we know it in the UK has more secular origins. In 1909, Sonora Smart Dodd of Washington decided to commemorate her late father on his birthday in June, as her way of thanking him for raising 6 children as a widower. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge declared the third Sunday in June Father’s Day. Over the years other countries, including the UK, adopted the custom.

In the week before El Dia del Padre, children in Spanish schools will be busy making cards and gifts for their fathers, and grown up children living and working away will do their best to return home for the day. In Spain, the family is paramount.

In the Community of Valencia, where we live, 19th March is also the culmination of Las Fallas in Valencia, a 4 day fiesta of fireworks, music and effigies which culminates in an enormous bonfire on March 19th. Las Fallas originates from the days when the carpenters of Valencia used to burn old wood and wooden utensils used throughout the winter in honour of St Joseph, who of course was a carpenter as well as Jesus’ father.

These days, the emphasis is on fun, and Las Fallas is well worth a visit if you’re in Valencia mid March. Be prepared for the noise, though. Spain is a noisy country anyway, but the level of decibels at Las Fallas is akin to a sonic boom. That’s one thing I love about Spain and the Spanish people; they certainly know how to celebrate, whatever the occasion!

Image credit: Maggs Perkins @ maggs224.com

Three Kings Day in Spain

The Three Kings arrive in the port in Torrevieja

The Three Kings arrive in the port in Torrevieja

Christmas in Spain is not so commercialised as in other areas of the western world, notably the UK and the USA. Christmas preparations don’t start until the middle of December, and while it’s a family time, the main occasion for gifts and celebrations is Epiphany, or ‘Dia de los Reyes.’ (Day of the Kings)

Tradition has it that the Three Kings travelled through Spain on their way to Bethlehem to welcome the Baby Jesus, and to mark this, Spanish children put out their shoes on the night before Epiphany, January 5th. They are rewarded with presents, which legend has it are left by Balthazar, riding a donkey.

That’s the Spanish equivalent of Santa Claus and his reindeer, and in areas of Spain like Alicante province, where there is a large British expat population,  Spanish and English children have the best of both worlds. English parents eager to embrace local customs encourage their children to put out their shoes on Epiphany Eve, and Spanish parents give in to their children’s demands for presents on Christmas Morning, just like their English amigos. However, Dia de los Reyes remains the main gift fest in Spanish homes.

In villages, towns and cities all over Spain, the Three Kings arrive at around 6.00pm on Epiphany Eve. The tiniest village has a ‘Three Kings Parade,’ when local men specially chosen for the honour will parade through the streets, throwing gifts of sweets to children and adults alike. In Algorfa, the kings are particularly generous, especially to pretty ladies in the crowd.

The bigger the town, the more elaborate the arrival of the Kings and the ensuing parade. In Torrevieja,the Kings traditionally arrive by sea, and then proceed to the main town square, led by elves who throw gifts to the crowd, and various animals led by royal pages dressed in the garb of Arabs, Egyptians and Romans. Oriental dancers entertain the huge crowds. The Kings ride on camels at the rear of the parade, and are heralded by brass bands. In total, around 500 people participate in the parade.

All Three Kings Parades end with a church service, after which the families go home to a celebration meal, before the children polish their shoes prior to leaving them outside the front door for Balthazar. On 6th January, the Kings visit local hospitals, distributing gifts to sick children.

In a land where the fiesta is king, the Three Kings Fiesta is the most important of the year. The Spanish certainly know how to party, and Epiphany, as well as being an important religious festival, is one of the biggest parties of the year, whether you live in a tiny village or a big city.

Photo credit: www.torrevieja.com


Feliz Navidad – love it or loathe it?

Immaculada has passed, and in Spain that means the belens are going up, and the first plays of Feliz Navidad will soon be heard on the radio, it they haven’t already. Feliz Navidad was written by Jose Feliciano in 1970, for an album of Christmas songs he was recording. At the time, it was August in California, and he couldn’t really get into the Christmas spirit, so he told the recording crew about Christmases past with his Puerto Rican family.

They were very interested in his reminiscences, and remarked that there were many similarities between the two cultures when it came to celebrating Christmas. This gave Feliciano the idea to write a bi-lingual Christmas song for the title track of the album, and he’s said in interviews that it took him around five minutes to write Feliz Navidad.

The song was never likely to win awards with it’s simple but catchy refrains, and Feliciano was stunned when it became a best-seller. Today, 52 years after it was written, it still figures in the top 25 of the most popular Christmas songs, and it’s been covered by lots of big names in the music business.

Feliz Navidad is one of those songs that polarises opinions – you either love it or loathe it, there’s no middle ground. Personally, I love it. And I particularly love the version by the Three Tenors, although the original 1970 Feliciano version is the one I listen to most. However, by the time it gets to 3 Kings, I’m all Feliz Navidad-ed out – until Immaculada comes around again, that is. By then, I’m raring to sing along again. My friend Bev is also an enthusiast – you should hear her belt it out after we’ve had a session on the cava!

What about you? Are you a Feliz Navidad lover or loather? I’d love to hear your views.

Image credit: Maggs224.com

Dia de la Concepcion Immaculada – 8 December

Algorfa's Belen

Algorfa’s Belen

8 December is ‘Dia de la Concepcion Immaculada,’ or ‘Day of the Immaculate Conception’ in Spain. It’s yet another public holiday, much to the annoyance of our neighbours, who went out to start their Christmas shopping in earnest and found all the stores closed!

Saturday 6th December is also a public holiday for Constitution Day, but most of the major stores were still open for business. Immaculada is different, though, as it’s a religious holiday. Christmas may be only 2 weeks away, but to the Spanish, it’s more important to commemorate the day and attend Mass than to put a few more Euros in the till. This highlights a major difference between Spanish and English culture – unless stores are compelled by law to close, as is the case on Easter Sunday, no English retailer would dream of closing to business for 2 days in the final run up to Christmas.

There is often confusion surrounding this holiday, because many people believe it refers to the conception of Jesus. However, it is actually the commemoration of the conception of the Virgin Mary, by her mother Anne. In most of Spain, Mary is revered more than Jesus, and Immaculada is enthusuastically celebrated.

After Mass, the Spanish people use this day of leisure to decorate their homes, put up the Christmas Tree and set out the Belen. (Nativity Scene) This is when Christmas begins in earnest for Spanish families. Nobody here puts up their decorations in November, which is rather refreshing. It’s like Christmas used to be in England about 40 years ago.

Each town and village, however small or large, will unveil the Belen on Immaculada, or within days afterwards. The Belen is more than just a Nativity Scene as we know it; it often aims to represent the whole of Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth. As well as the main group of Joseph, Mary, Jesus, the angel, ox and ass, (Nascimiento or Mysterio in Spanish) there will be workers, soldiers and animals to portray village life 2,000 years ago. Families spend years building up their own Belen, adding more figures each year.

Public Belenes can be spectacular. The size of the village has no bearing on the size or scope of the Belen. In our small village of Algorfa, the

El caganer - the shitting shepherd

El caganer – the shitting shepherd

Belen takes up almost half of the Plaza de Espana. The figures have moving parts, including the ‘shitting shepherd,’ who, much to the delight of the children, can be found on the outskirts of the scene.

If this sounds a little disrespectful, it’s not really. It comes from the Catalan custom of including a defecating figure in the Belen. (El Caganer). This is supposed to bring good luck and good health for the year ahead, as the figure is ‘fertilising’ the ground, and is obviously healthy himself, as all the plumbing is working well! The figure is often a shepherd, but some towns will have a caricature of a local personality cast as a humorous addition to the Belen.

The Spanish Belen is so much more than just a nativity scene; it’s been a vital ingredient of Christmas in Spain since 1758. For more information on this fascinating subject, including a guide to building your own Belen, visit Spanish Nativity soon. I’ll tell you more about the Belen in another post.

Dia de la Constitucion – 6 December

Fireworks are a major part of the Constitution Day celebrations

Fireworks are a major part of the Constitution Day celebrations

Dia de la Constitucion, or Constitution Day, 6th December, is unique in Spanish culture. For a start, it’s about the only national holiday that doesn’t have religious overtones. It commemorates the National Referendum of 1978 to approve the draft constitution which was the gateway to democracy in Spain following Franco’s death. Around 87% of   Spaniards voted in favour of the Constitution.

While the celebrations for Constitution Day are formal, civic affairs rather than the usual community fiestas, the Spanish people are proud of their constitution and their part in its inception, and few Spaniards will pass up the chance to enjoy a national holiday!

These days, there are likely to be protest marches alongside the celebrations, and Constitution Day is recognised as the secular beginning of Christmas celebrations in Spain. This is when decorations go up in shops, streets and houses, although the increasing expat population means some areas, particularly around Torrevieja, put up street lights during November.

What of the Spanish Constitution itself? Well, it is unusual in that it makes legal provisions for social rights for its citizens and defines Spain as ‘A Social and democratic state, subject to the rule of law.’ As the Communist Party were politically strong at the time of the transition from Dictatorship to Democracy, the Constitution includes provision for state intervention in private companies ‘in the public interest’ and workers’ rights to ownership of the means of production. This is something of a mixed blessing, and politically unpopular in some quarters.

The Constitution allows for autonomy in the 17 Communities of Spain and in some cities, making the country more of a federation than a unitarian state, although neither of these terms are actually used. However, the Constitution does state that Spain is a united and indivisible nation, in which other nationalities such as the Basques and Catalans can co-exist in harmony. It doesn’t always work in practice, but that’s the theory.

Each autonomous area has its own Statute of Autonomy, which in many cases is drifting away from the ideals expressed in the Constitution. This brings its own problems, as various provinces include statutory clauses which may impact on other communities. For example, in Andalusia, Aragon, Catalonia and Extramadura, there is a clause giving these regions exclusive management powers over any rivers flowing through their boundaries. As you might imagine, communities upstream and downstream are unwilling to accept this, as decisions will be made over which they have no control but with which they will be required to co-operate.

The death penalty is allowed during wartime under the Constitution, although it has been abolished in other circumstances. However, as it has been dropped from the Military Code of Practice, there is effectively no death penalty in Spain.

There has been a major amendment to the constitution under which residents from other EU countries living in Spain may vote in elections and stand as candidates in local elections. There are also moves to alter the succession of the monarchy so that the eldest child, rather than the eldest male child, inherits the throne, although this hasn’t happened yet.

To British people, celebrating a constitution may seem a bit odd, since there is actually no written constitution to celebrate, but it’s an important day in Spain’s calendar, if only because it kicks off Christmas.

Dia de Todos los Santos – 1 November

All Saints Day

All Saints Day, 1 November, is known in Spain as Dia de Todos los Santos. At one time it was always celebrated in May, but tradition has it that it was moved to November to offset some of the paganism associated with Hallowe’en. In Spain it’s one of the 14 national public holidays, so banks and shops will be closed. When Todos Santos falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, many Spaniards follow the tradition  of ‘Haciendo Puerte,’ literally ‘taking a bridge.’  In other words, they’ll take the Monday or Friday off too, to award themselves a 4 day weekend. In 2014, Todos Santos falls on a Saturday, so there are likely to be some rather disappointed locals in a village near you!

Todos Santos is a day  to remember the saints (santos) who were martyrs to their faith. That in itself is a vital element of Catholicism,but it’s also a day when Spanish people everywhere remember all their dead. In some Spanish speaking countries, particularly Mexico, it’s also or alternatively referred to as ‘Dia de Los Muertos,’ literally ‘Day of the Dead.’ On Todos Santos, every Spaniard will make sure that the day is free of unnecessary chores so that it can be celebrated to the full. There is a special Mass, which is often celebrated in the local cemetery. And there will be a silent procession to the hallowed ground. Incidentally, you might have noticed that there are considerably more cemeteries in Spain than in England. Spain is a Catholic country, and Catholics don’t tend to go in for cremation.

All Saints Day

It’s customary to take ‘offrendas,’ or offerings of flowers, to the cemetery, making Todos Santos the busiest day of the year for Spanish florists. However, you won’t see the price of flowers rocketing as you do in England around Valentine’s Day and Mothering Sunday. That really isn’t the Spanish way.

Todos Santos involves a spending a lot of time at the cemetery, so traffic will be unusually heavy in the vicinity of your local burial place. In Algorfa, if there are more than 4 cars at a junction or queuing on a roundabout, we say we have a traffic jam, and by local standards, the roundabout by the local cemetery is gridlocked on Todos Santos. As a mark of respect, you should drive slowly near the cemeteries, and don’t toot on the horn. It’s also a nice gesture to allow priority to cars turning into cemeteries. If you’re on foot in the vicinity of the local cemetery, try not to  disturb those who are visiting departed loved ones. This might seem pointless to more secular sensibilities, but remember you’re a guest in a country whose residents tend to revere their dead in any case, but especially on Todos Santos.

Because you’re in Spain, you probably expect food to play a major part in the day, and it certainly does. ‘La Castanada’ is traditional, particularly in Catalonia. This means roasting and feasting on chestnuts (las castanadas) and sweet potatoes (los boniatos). The shops and markets are already full of them. After that there are panelletes, small almond cakes. The food eaten on Todos Santos is inspired by traditional funeral feasts in ancient Spain, and it can also be enjoyed on the evening before Todos Santos. Huesos de Santo, (saint’s bones) are small marzipan cakes which are also enjoyed as part of La Castanada.

If you possibly can, arrange to see a performance of Don Juan Tenorio. This play about the legendary Spanish lover is always performed on Todos Santos. The final scene of the play is set in a cemetery, where Don Juan begs his deceased fiancé to forgive him.

All Saints Day

As always, the Spanish throw themselves wholeheartedly into their fiestas. As well as a time of reflection and prayer, Todos Santos is also a day to celebrate the lives of the departed. Wherever you may be in Spain, enjoy Todos Santos with your Spanish neighbours.