They say that enduring memories are those that we see through our rose tinted spectacles. The older one gets the more we like to hang on to memories, although I guess that holds true for everybody, as Christmas is a special time when we are treated by and likewise we like to treat those whom we love. My best remembered Christmases were those of my childhood and what made them special were the times spent visiting relatives and the times that they came round visiting us. Like most Gibraltarian households, the twelve days of Christmas were mostly spent huddled around the Christmas table eating or trying not to eat. There were a few other traditions to uphold as we shall see later.
In those days of yore no one thought of expanding waistlines and if you were trying not to eat it was because you had literally stuffed yourself silly and your digestive system was on semi permanent overload. Our mentor was Santa and he had a very generous waistline, no doubt acquired by overindulging in mince pies and ‘polvorones’ (almond and cinnamon cakes). I remember not wanting to give up believing in Santa although, truth be said, in those days of the mid fifties here on the Rock, the presents were brought by ‘Los Reyes’ (the Three kings) on January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany.
You were indeed privileged if you got presents on Christmas day and on ‘el dia de Los Reyes’ (the day of the Three Kings). There was that beloved uncle who shall be nameless in my story, who would tease us children that Santa didn’t exist. “Of course he does- who gave me my scooter last Christmas” etc … It was all done in jest and probably fuelled by the Christmas ‘spirit’ that pours from bottles.
The traditions, some of which are still held by a few to this day and some now long disappeared, were that we used to go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, (‘Misa de Gallo) notwithstanding the ordeal of trying to remain well behaved while feeling over stuffed and over eager for the delivery of some Christmas presents – at least to tide us over until the Three Kings ‘arrived’ in January. The other tradition now all but lost, was that relatives brought around ‘panderos y zambombas’ (percussive Christmas noisemakers) that would accompany rousing traditional carols (sung?) in Spanish. The musicality of these tunes was always questionable but the spirit behind them was to make merry and celebrate and we usually succeeded on both counts. Soon the adult contingent of family members would be sporting flushed faces, laughing too much and getting louder as the night wore on. There were some nostalgic tears as well as those who had passed on were remembered and toasted.
Another tradition here was that on Christmas Eve you had to eat salmon salad (a la ‘John West’ I remember well) and no ‘Noche Buena’ table was complete unless the ‘Ajuelas’ (rolls of puff pastry in syrup decorated with colourful hundreds and thousands) made an appearance followed by the cinnamon and raisin cakes (tortillas de pasas – also in syrup -yummy). The antidote for those excessive family poisonings in the name of celebrations was the trusty white tin of Andrews liver salt (Sal de frutas) and many a journey to the ‘throne’ was compromised by eager bowels now best not remembered!
On the tender side of those memories are still the beautiful Spanish ‘Villancicos,’ carols with their lyrics centred on the wonder of a God-child born in a stable. Even to this day new carols are added to the popular repertoire and a recent addition to the St Paul’s Choir is a tune called (Piensa la Mula). The concept of this lyric is that the donkey/mule that was carrying Mary while theywere looking for accommodation was a sentient being which felt privileged to be a part of the impending birth of the God-Child and it wanted to ‘hurry’ to the stable to get its precious cargo comfortable. ‘La Mula’ is blessed with a beautiful melody that truly captures the spirit of Christmas like the great ‘Silent Night,’ both of them steeped in religious tradition. That is not to say that the popular English and American Christmas carols do not capture the same spirit of love. You would have to be made of very hard stuff not to get a lump in your throat seeing school children singing carols at their Christmas assembly.
Happily that tradition is very much alive here and soon we shall be seeing them on our TV screens dressed up as shepherds and angels, reminding us that especially at Christmas we all want to be young and still believe in Christmas and Santa. This Christmas take a moment to remember how fortunate we are here in this community that still upholds some traditions which make the season what it is, a religious festival that, although it has been taken over by commercialism, still brings us together as families. Let us make it our toast this year- to families here and everywhere. Happy Christmas everyone!